On a 31-21 vote, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has approved a bill that, among other things, would require all vehicles sold in the U.S. to be equipped with a "black box" that records crash data by 2015.
The Motor Vehicle Safety Act now goes to the full House for debate. The Senate is considering a similar measure.
Included in the bill is a requirement for automakers to provide an emergency brake override system that could stop the car if the throttle were stuck in the open position. That provision was added in the wake of Toyota's well-publicized unintended acceleration problems that forced a large recall earlier this year.
The measure also includes a provision increasing the maximum penalty on carmakers that fail to report defects. Toyota has paid a record $16.2 million fine in connection with its unintended acceleration problems.
Some tougher provisions of the bill were removed after objections from the auto industry. However, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it is generally in favor of most of the bill's provisions, including the emergency brake override system and the inclusion of a "black box" data recorder.
In testimony before the committee earlier this month, Alliance CEO Dave McCurdy tempered his support of the black box provision with a few concerns when the original wording called for "black boxes like those found in airplanes."
"The typical airplane black box costs $22,000, which is close to the average price of a new car," McCurdy told the committee. "In my opinion, Rep. Green's legislation -- H.R. 5169, the Event Data Recorder Enhancement Act -- is a better approach."
Under Green's measure, the Secretary of Transportation would set the standards for automobile "black boxes."
The measure would give new power to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA would be authorized to order recalls that "present a substantial likelihood of death or injury to the public."
To increase NHTSA's budget, the measure would add a $9 tax per car -- ultimately to be paid by the purchaser -- with the money going directly to fund the agency's operations.
The idea for "black boxes" in cars has been around since the 1970s. It was first advanced by the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that investigates airplane accidents. The agency made the recommendation to both NHTSA and the automobile industry.
When Event Data Recorders were introduced in the last decade, hundreds of consumers wrote to federal auto safety regulators objecting to a new rule establishing minimum requirements for automobile "black boxes" and data recorders. Privacy advocates said they were concerned the data would fall into the wrong hands and would contribute to government "spying" on drivers.
Many vehicles currently collect data in onboard computers that are part of the vehicle electronics system. Toyota analyzed data from the computers earlier this year when it investigated a number of sudden acceleration reports.
The legal website ExpertLaw.com says there are many misconceptions about a vehicle "black box," saying its best uses are for diagnosing vehicle related problems, not to settle legal issues arising from accidents.
"Motorists should be very concerned about this device," the website warns. "The automobile black box should never be used as a stand-alone device. The use of physical evidence, such as impact data, skid / yaw marks, initial / resting positions of vehicle(s), in conjunction with the black box, as well as common sense is essential to obtain the correct resultant. "