EDRs have become an integral part of many collision investigations and product liability litigation actions, proving their value many times over. However, because this technology evolved in a legislative vacuum, with little or no standardization, it is not without a few notable shortcomings. Chief among them is data access.
It has been well over a decade since the introduction of the event data recorder (EDR) in passenger vehicles and light trucks. General Motors was the first notable manufacturer to publicly disclose its use of this relatively new technology and its announcement made headlines. The attention came not from the announcement itself; but, from the details. Specifically, the American public first became aware that many of the vehicles already being driven for years had the ability to monitor how the vehicle was being operated. Generally associated with airbag deployment events, the first EDRs recorded relatively few driver-controlled parameters such as seat belt use; however, the newest vehicles were capable of monitoring and storing significantly more data, such as vehicle speed, in the few seconds before a collision. Indeed, this was the parameter that turned heads. Now for the first time – and whether they wanted it or not – motorists had an independent electronic witness riding along with them ready and able to provide detailed pre-crash data describing actions such as speed, braking, and accelerator control. In the years that followed, other manufacturers such as Ford, Chrysler, and most recently Toyota, have adopted EDR technology.
Due to their impressive capabilities, EDRs have become an integral part of many collision investigations and product liability litigation actions, proving their value many times over. However, because this technology evolved in a legislative vacuum, with little or no standardization, it is not without a few notable shortcomings. Chief among them is data access. For example, accessing data stored within a General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and several other vehicles, is, to the trained technician, a relatively simple process requiring commercially available computer hardware and software. Vehicles made by such manufacturers have become the so-called “supported vehicles”; however, to this day, most manufactures still retain proprietary control over the necessary equipment. Accessing data from these vehicles remains difficult, impractical, and to some, frustrating. Another deficiency, which has been one of the most prevalent uncertainties surrounding this technology, has been the inconsistency between manufacturers regarding what constitutes a recording event and what specific data is recorded. Thus, unless a manufacturer has publicly disclosed its EDR capability and relinquished its proprietary control over data access, those interested in accessing and utilizing technology will likely encounter numerous challenges.
Automotive industry professionals were the first to recognize the divergent manner in which this technology was evolving, as well as the confusing, conflicting, and inconsistent consequences. Accordingly, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) formed various committees to seek at least some level of voluntary standardization with respect to how data is accessed and presented; however, the industry proved reluctant to adopt the SAE recommendations. But soon, auto manufacturers will have little choice in participating in a process developed to standardize how vehicles record crash data and how manufacturers will provide access to it.
Beginning in September 2012, all EDR-equipped passenger vehicles and light trucks made after that date, with a gross vehicle weight rating of 8,500 lbs. or less, will be subject to the requirements of the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 49 CFR Part 563 rule. This legislation, already in the developmental process for several years, includes numerous technical requirements such as, a minimum set of recording parameters, performance standards, data accuracy and crash survivability standards, to name a few. But perhaps the most significant feature of the Part 563 rule is that manufacturers must now relinquish their proprietary control over the equipment, software, and data decoding algorithms, thus lowering the barriers to data access. Over time, Part 563 will dramatically increase the number of “supported” vehicles such that nearly every vehicle sustaining an airbag deployment will possess a predictable set of data accessible with commercially available equipment. However, this dramatic increase in supported vehicles may not need to wait until the 2012 vehicles hit the road. For example, Toyota – likely in anticipation of the impending 2012 implementation date – recently relinquished its control over the equipment necessary to access data from not only its newest vehicles, but for vehicles dating as far back as 2004, as well. This alone has provided a substantial increase in the number of supported vehicles, considering Toyota’s North American market share. However, it would not be surprising that other manufacturers will follow Toyota’s lead and provide similar backward support upon their own Part 563 compliance efforts.
But as robust and far-reaching as Part 563 is, it does possess one feature that some may consider unusual considering the Rule’s safety objective. Specifically, it does not mandate the use of an EDR device; rather, the Rule applies only to 2012 vehicles that are already equipped with a device. Thus, if a particular manufacturer does not utilize EDR technology, the Rule is moot. For example, several years ago, Mercedes Benz went on record indicating that at least one of its model lines spanning several years was not equipped with an EDR. Furthermore, a manufacturer could, in theory, elect to remove the EDR capability from any or all its products and simply not bother with Part 563 compliance. In practice, however, nearly all manufacturers currently utilize some form of EDR technology and, based on the industry involvement, comments, and participation in forming the Rule, it is expected that most if not all manufacturers that currently utilize EDR technology will continue to do so beyond 2012.
R. Scott King, BSME, is an automotive/mechanical engineer with DJS Associates, Inc. He can be contacted at 215-659-2010 or via email at rsk@forensicDJS.com