Innovative Technologies for Assessing Vehicle Collision Claims
November 5, 2020
November 5, 2020
The field of collision reconstruction has been around for decades, and it has advanced insomuch that it is now commonly employed when investigating insurance claims and in litigation. A significant amount of that growth has been within the last decade; the era of smart devices and emerging technologies. While traditional mathematics and physics still underpin the methodologies used in our day-to-day work, the technologies used in our investigations have improved by leaps and bounds. Computer simulations allow faster and more accurate calculations than when done by hand, event data recorders (‘black boxes’) reveal vital collision-related data, and 3D laser scanning allows for the creation of virtual environments. It is therefore paramount that collision reconstruction experts keep up-to-date with the latest technology to provide the most accurate and reliable collision assessments possible.
Two recent innovations make use of in-vehicle technologies that further our understanding of vehicle movements and behaviour, not only in relation to a collision, but also throughout a vehicle’s lifetime. These innovations are telematics/infotainment systems in general, and a Toyota specific technology called Toyota Vehicle Control History.
Telematics and infotainment (T/I) systems are the latest candidates for data imaging due to the role they play as entertainment centres, communication hubs, and GPS-based navigation systems (Figure 1). T/I systems have pervaded the auto industry, and having once been a luxury only found in high-end vehicles, these technologies are now increasingly becoming standard even in entry-level vehicles. These systems provide users with in-vehicle access to their mobile devices (i.e., GPS navigation, phone calls, and music), either as a stand-alone native device, or as an extension of those devices via Bluetooth or via a USB connection to the vehicle.
Unbeknownst to most, these T/I systems continually record a variety of vehicle and user data. Some data that may be recorded include:
-Engine on/off status;
-Acceleration/braking events; and
-GPS speed, location, and guidance routes.
The recorded data can come from devices connected to a vehicle such as mobile phones and media players, the vehicle’s internal sensors, and from the navigation system by way of user input. Further, the data stored by the T/I systems is virtually permanent, even if a vehicle is damaged beyond repair due to a collision. Just like in a personal computer, if data is ‘deleted,’ it is not necessarily lost forever. Data can be retrieved with the right hardware, software, and knowledge.
Reconstruction experts now have a forensic tool available that can download data from these T/I systems. This data can provide new insights into vehicle motions in the moments leading up to a collision and throughout the life of a vehicle. These insights can aid in reconstructing collisions for litigation purposes, as well as in other areas such as combatting insurance fraud or in verifying alleged auto theft.
The preeminent tool that can access the valuable data recorded by T/I systems is the iVe system, developed by Berla Corporation. Based off the technology and techniques of retrieving data from portable GPS units, the iVe system is at the cutting edge of vehicle data retrieval. A vast amount of useful vehicle data can be made available; data that most people do not even know exists.
The iVe system is not necessarily a simple ‘plug-and-play’ system like other tools available to reconstruction experts; it is more of a complex series of individual electronic components, the use of which varies depending on the vehicle being accessed. Data collection from some vehicles is as simple as connecting a USB, linked between a PC and the Berla software, whereas other vehicles require the T/I systems to be dismantled to access and interface their delicate inner workings. The process can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours and can often be laborious, but the information obtained can be relevant and the fruits of that labour may be worth it.
The Berla iVe system includes specially designed hand tools to extract and disassemble infotainment systems, electronics to access the recorded data, and software to download and analyze the data (Figure 2).
There is even a mobile app to identify supported vehicles and associated data, and to provide detailed removal instructions (Figure 3). This ensures extraction and disassembly of the in-vehicle system is simple and easy, and that there is no damage to the vehicle or its components. The process begins by knowing which vehicles have infotainment systems that can be downloaded. The app includes a full list of supported vehicles, along with the type of information that can be retrieved, which varies from vehicle to vehicle. Thus, vehicles can be checked if they’re supported for download early on in the claims process.
Consider an insurance claim alleging that a vehicle was parked and left unattended when it was reportedly damaged by another vehicle. Depending on the type of vehicle, its whereabouts may be obtained for a given date and time and compared to the reported date. Combining this with traditional reconstruction techniques can help to verify if the reported information is valid. The same cross-referencing can be done with user phone records to potentially identify a vehicle’s occupant(s) in verification of a theft claim. Additionally, vehicle GPS tracking data can be used to determine vehicle motions in the moments leading up to a collision, which can assist in collision reconstruction efforts for litigation purposes, or even criminal investigations. These abilities hint at the obvious: can this information be obtained as a part of any examination of a vehicle? After all, nobody wants their data taken without their consent.
Pro-tip 1: Legal considerations:
Prior to obtaining data from telematics and infotainment systems, it is recommended that written authorization be first obtained from the vehicle’s owner due to the sensitive personal nature of some of the data available. For this purpose, a description of the nature and types of the sensitive information may prove to be useful.
Pro-tip 2: Be wary of what vehicle you connect your personal devices to:
By connecting your mobile device to a rental vehicle via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or USB, your personal data may be automatically uploaded to that vehicles infotainment system and become readily available for anyone to download it later. This means that the rental company or an investigator may obtain your data without your knowledge or approval, assuming they have the right technology. So, read the rental contract’s fine print!
Further, your data can potentially be made available to anyone anywhere, as it may be obtained from your vehicle indirectly. For example, if your vehicle is ever sold, salvaged, or otherwise disposed of, its infotainment system may be removed and sold online. It is quite likely that if you have ever connected a mobile device to it, that data would still be there, in some stranger’s hands. For example, we were able to purchase a Ford infotainment system from eBay and subsequently downloaded its recorded data. Surprisingly, it had approximately 4 GB of data stored, including vehicle events (start/stops, headlight activation, etc.), GPS track logs showing the vehicle’s location at various dates and times, as well as call logs and contact information from several once-connected mobile devices. Be mindful of the fact that your personal data from your mobile or other electronic device may not be ‘safe,’ even if it’s connected to your own vehicle.
In addition to the typical data recorded by a telematics/infotainment system (discussed above), Toyota vehicles (including Lexus and some Scion models) can also record additional information and store it under its umbrella term: Vehicle Control History (VCH).
Toyota VCH information was initially used by service technicians and engineers to analyze performance characteristics, and to troubleshoot problems reported by customers. To that latter point, with the implementation of Toyota Safety Sense autonomous technologies, such as forward collision warning or autonomous emergency braking, it was soon realized that this historical data could also be used to shed light on what happened in the moments leading up to a collision.
Vehicles are constantly monitoring data from sensors such as speed, steering wheel position, brake pedal status, and accelerator pedal position, just to name a few. Toyota VCH records the same basic information but records for longer periods of time and records data pertaining to driver inputs as well as the autonomous features. Events are triggered if certain thresholds are met, such as activation of the anti-lock braking system, emergency level steering by the driver, activation of the forward collision warning, or activation of the autonomous emergency braking, all of which is also stored in the electronics of the black box, but just accessed in a different way. Since VCH is constantly monitoring and capturing data, this information can be useful even if there was never a crash, i.e. if there was a near miss, or some other trigger that requested the system to record.
The system can also save black and white images from the forward-facing camera (located in the front end emblem or behind the rear-view mirror), which provides a short low resolution slideshow of what was happening ahead of the vehicle leading up to the event (Figure 4). Some of the triggered events in the VCH can provide data relating to the vehicle’s motion before a crash even occurs, upwards of 12 seconds surrounding that event (6 seconds before, and 6 seconds after).
The images captured by the forward-facing camera of a vehicle are stored in the camera itself. Retrieval of these images requires that the camera still be connected to both the vehicle’s electrical system and the EDR when the download is completed. Put another way, if the vehicle was involved in a heavy collision and the camera was destroyed, then and those images would be inaccessible but the rest of the VCH data could still be downloaded.
The VCH data can be acquired two ways:
Once the vehicle is connected to a laptop, in order to communicate and download the VCH, users will require a paid subscription to Toyota’s Techstream software (Figure 5). Not only does this software provide the ability to access the VCH data, but it also provides an extensive Toyota-specific database of technical information that can be used to assist with the analysis or assessment of the incident.
These aforementioned automotive advancements (EDRs, T/I systems, and Toyota VCH) offer varying levels and types of vehicle data available.
-Most modern vehicles are equipped with EDRs that can record collision related data.
-Many modern vehicles are equipped with both EDRs and T/I systems that can record historical vehicle data.
-Some modern vehicles (newer Toyota’s) are equipped with not only EDRs and T/I systems, but also Toyota VCH, which can record both collision related data as well as historical data related to other vehicle dynamics and operator inputs.
In some cases, a vehicle may have all three levels of data that can be accessed for use in collision claims, civil litigation regarding liability, or even criminal investigations. The data gathered from these systems can be used with other vehicle data and collision reconstruction techniques for a variety of purposes. Common uses include speed determinations and vehicle motion analysis, roadway lane positioning, theft verification, verification of reported circumstances, driver behaviour, etc.
The usefulness of EDRs has been regularly proven over the last decade. Their use has appeared in court decisions in the Canada and the US. While T/I systems and Toyota VCHs are still relatively new, they are rapidly pervading the auto industry and are increasingly making important contributions to understanding collisions or validating insurance claims.