By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; A16
A new Toyota Tundra pickup struck an oak tree off a rural road in Washington state in 2007, killing the 29-year-old driver, in what in many ways seemed liked a common sort of tragedy.
When this April the driver's parents and a U.S. senator finally prevailed upon Toyota to examine the contents of the truck's crash data recorder, the electronic readings suggested a collision that was far from ordinary.
The data indicated the truck had been going 177 mph when it hit the tree, much faster than what the pickup possibly could go, safety experts said. Yet a separate reading from the recorder put the speed at 75 mph before impact.
As the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration conducts its investigation into unintended acceleration in Toyotas, the crash data recorders or "black boxes" in the vehicles have become a primary piece of evidence. But long-standing reservations about the reliability of the data -- some of which have been voiced by none other than Toyota officials -- raise doubts about how much the safety agency can rely on them to determine the cause of the crashes.
Last week, NHTSA briefed Congress on its research and presented findings from 58 event data recorders, or EDRs. In 35 cases, the recorders showed the brake was never applied, suggesting that some of the alleged cases of sudden acceleration might simply have been driver error, agency officials said.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair said NHTSA has conducted "validation tests to ensure that EDRs were providing accurate pre-crash data. As a result of that testing, NHTSA is confident that the EDR information obtained in those specific incidents is accurate."
But in the past, Toyota has expressed doubts about the recorders. Toyota declined to comment for this story.
In 2008, Toyota questioned the reliability of the devices in an effort to prevent the driver of a Toyota Echo from using data from the crash recorder in a lawsuit against the automaker.
"The data retrieved from the EDR is far from reliable," a Toyota court filing said at the time. "The EDR was not intended to be used a reconstruction tool in the field. It has not been validated as a reliable reconstruction tool or crash data recorder for crash events in the field."
Toyota's attorneys also noted that although both sides in the case agreed that one of the passengers in the vehicle was belted and the other was not, the data recorder said both seat belts were unbuckled at the time.
"Everyone agrees that's wrong," the Toyota attorney said, according to a transcript.
"The Toyota EDRs are so unreliable that even Toyota has challenged their reliability in court," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Given the demonstrated errors, NHTSA can't rely upon them in its investigation."
Similarly, in a Q&A on its Web site, posted before the furor erupted over sudden acceleration problems, Toyota expressed doubts about its ability to accurately read the data from the recorders. The tool for reading the data has not been "scientifically validated," the company has said. "At this time, Toyota does not have confidence that the readout reports it generates are accurate," it added.
Moreover, even if a device is recording properly, misfiring engine electronics could feed it false information, critics said.
"The event data recorder is not an independent witness. It is a blind witness that records only what is whispered by the faulty engine electronics," said Donald Slavik, a Milwaukee-based attorney representing plaintiffs in four cases of alleged unintended acceleration.
Toyota has been reluctant to reveal the contents of the crash data recorders, which some have used in lawsuits against the company. The family of the driver of the Toyota Tundra that struck the oak in Washington state repeatedly asked the automaker to provide a reading from the data recorder, but Toyota refused. It wasn't until Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) pressed the company in hearings in March that Toyota offered to read the data.
"So I want to know: Can you provide that information to Mr. Eves's family, so that they can have this data and information?" she pressed Toyota executives at the hearing.
The next month, the company did so. But the results did not clarify what had happened to the young driver, Christopher Eves.
The data readout "was implausible," said Ron Eves, the driver's father. "It was almost contemptuous. . . . They just said, 'We have completed the download' -- end of story."