Whenever an airplane crashes, investigators focus on the black-box data, which may explain why the plane went down. Though most drivers don't realize it, two-thirds of new U.S. automobiles have black boxes, too. They're called "event data recorders." These devices tell the airbags when to deploy, but they also record the car's speed, whether the brake or gas pedal was engaged, and if seat belts were fastened. They've become such a vital tool to car-crash investigators that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued new requirements, which take effect in 2012, standardizing exactly what data the devices measure.
In theory these black boxes could help explain what's causing the sudden acceleration problems that led Toyota to recall millions of vehicles. There's just one catch: Toyota keeps its data secret. Ford, GM, and Chrysler's black boxes use an open platform that allows law-enforcement officials to download data. But only Toyota is able to download the proprietary data off its devices. In fact, there's just one laptop in the entire country capable of reading a Toyota data recorder, and Toyota will download one only under court order, or at the request of law enforcement or the NHTSA.
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