Inside A ‘Black Box’: Senator Coaxes Secrets From Toyota, As House Members Pose More Questions

Toyota executives last week backed down under the glare of congressional scrutiny, saying that they would allow data from one of their vehicle “black boxes” to be read in order to try to shed light on the fatal unintended acceleration plaguing the embattled automaker.

Toyota previously had denied a request by the parents of Chris Eves, 29, of Bellingham, Wash., who died in 2007 in a case of what could have been unintended acceleration.

Meanwhile, lawmakers Friday also fired off a lengthy letter to Toyota executives, asking a number of detailed questions about the so-called black boxes in the company’s cars and trucks.

Eves was driving a three-month-old Toyota Tundra on October 17, 2007, when the vehicle veered and crashed head-on into a tree on a rural road north of his hometown. The cause of the crash was initially attributed to driver error, but the vehicle’s high speed and the reason why it veered off the road remain unsolved.

His parents, though, later learned that the 2007 Toyota Tundra was among the millions of vehicles on Toyota’s recall lists for problems with the driver-side floor mat and accelerator pedal, either of which could cause unwanted acceleration.

Ron and Lori Eves, also of Bellingham, are in possession of the “black box,” also known as an event data recorder, or EDR, from their son’s ill-fated Toyota Tundra. An EDR is connected to a vehicle’s air bag and records such information as speed and pressure on the gas and brake pedals before and after point of impact.

Although the Eveses have possession of the EDR from their son’s vehicle, reading it requires cooperation by Toyota — cooperation Toyota had been unwilling to give the grieving family, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who faced off with Toyota execs at a hearing Tuesday.

Frustrated and outraged lawmakers have been hauling Toyota’s American and Japanese honchos to appear under the glare of Capitol Hill with increasing regularity since late February when the House Energy and Commerce Committee held the first such inquiry that kicked off with a Toyota owner from Tennessee telling her own first-hand account of nearly dying when her car sped out of control, to speeds of 100 miles per hour.

Toyota’s bosses are facing additional hot water because Several Toyota owners whose cars are back on the road after being serviced as part of the automaker’s massive recall have told federal regulators that the fix didn’t work.

Cantwell says that she pressured the Toyota leaders appearing at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to allow the secrets within the EDR from Chris Eves’ truck to be unlocked.

“I’m asking this because one of my constituent’s sons died in a single-vehicle crash, driving one of the recalled 2007 Toyota Tundras,” Cantwell told the Toyota executives at the hearing. “His parents have the truck’s EDR and a request to the company to give them access to the software to read its contents. Toyota has turned them down. In my state, there is a law pending in the Washington legislature as a result of Toyota’s refusal. So I want to know –- can you provide that information to Mr. Eves’ family, so that they can have this data and information?”

With all eyes upon him, Yoshimi Inaba, president and chief executive officer of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., relented. “We will be glad to do so. This is our desire also to find out what has happened. And very, very sorry about what has happened to this family,” he answered.

Separately, on the other side of the Capitol, the chairmen from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its investigations subcommittee sent a letter Friday to James Lentz, the president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., in which they ask Lentz a number of detailed questions that focus specifically on Toyota EDR data.

Among their inquiries, they ask Lentz whether Toyota allows vehicle owners access to EDR data, and if not, why not.

The letter also cites a Los Angeles Times report that says Toyota is not capable of retrieving data from 2010 Camrys. The chairmen ask Lentz: “What data is retrievable from Toyota vehicles that currently contain black boxes? Please identify all models and years that are outfitted with black boxes, and please specify how, if at all, the retrievable data differs among models.”

The chairmen gave Lentz a week’s deadline in which to answer their questions about EDRs.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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