US safety body considers mandatory car black boxes

US safety regulators are looking at whether to make “black boxes” mandatory for all new vehicles in response to recent unintended acceleration problems in Toyota’s vehicles.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland told a congressional hearing the agency would be looking at the possibility of requiring the devices that can capture data on speed, braking effort and other details.

Strickland also said he was conducting a full review of NHTSA’s legal authority and whether it had the tools necessary to oversee automakers at a time when vehicles are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

“When I was sworn in two months ago, I felt it was important to look at whether there was a need to improve NHTSA’s effectiveness in this era of global marketplace and rapidly changing technologies,” Strickland told a US Congress energy and commerce subcommittee.

Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles globally for unintended acceleration since October, either involving accelerators trapped by floormats or a sticky pedal mechanism.

Toyota has also said it will install brake override technology on new vehicles and some older models, to ensure the engine returns to idle if the brake is pressed. Strickland said the NHTSA may make that feature, already found in some other makes, mandatory for all new cars.

US officials have linked the unintended acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles to five deaths and are examining whether reports of 47 other fatalities may be involved.

Most new vehicles are equipped with electronic recorders and the information captured seconds before and after a crash or other incident can be vital in reconstructing accidents. But their installation is voluntary and the ease of getting to the data varies widely.

Toyota has a more restrictive policy on “black boxes” than US automakers, but has recently pledged to provide more access to them. NHTSA has a prototype Toyota device for reading recorders and is expected to receive more equipment this spring.

Dave McCurdy, representing most major US automakers at the hearing as the chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group, said industry would work with Congress and the agency on “common sense” approaches.

Answering critics who say that the NHTSA did not investigate complaints about Toyota vehicles thoroughly, the agency is reviewing whether software-driven electronic throttles played any role in the unintended acceleration complaints. Toyota says its electronic systems are sound and NHTSA previously found no problems.

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