Creating a 'black box' similar to the data recorders used on airplanes, as recommended last week by the National Transportation Safety Board, would be a simple task, industry executives say.
Indeed, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen already have the devices in many vehicles.
An airbag's control module already monitors fault codes, vehicle speed, deceleration and crash force angle to determine if the airbag should deploy. Some automakers, such as GM, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, also monitor whether seat belts are being used.
'To capture that data (for later analysis) would only involve a software change,' said Kenneth Francis, program manager for Siemens Automotive, a leading supplier of airbag controllers to U.S., European and Asian automakers.
The control modules in GM vehicles, made by Delco Electronics, have had that recording capability for the past two years. The modules record seven crash parameters, which GM uses to improve safety systems, spokesman Kyle Johnson said.
The 1997 Ford Econoline van also records some crash data, spokesman Terry Bresnihan said. Recording capability is being added to several 1998 models including the Taurus and Ranger, a spokesman said.
Siemens Automotive includes a range of recording capabilities in the airbag control modules it supplies worldwide, Francis said. All its controllers record such basic information as fault codes, voltage and whether the systems' firing threshold was exceeded.
But some customers, particularly for their luxury models, want more detailed information such as acceleration data, and a record of the module's decision-making process in an accident that is near the system's deployment threshold.
For all its customers, Siemens will analyze control modules from crashed vehicles to help determine the severity of the accident, Francis said.
Siemens has been sending all those modules to its facility in Regensburg, Germany, for testing. But it will have test capabilities at its center in Auburn Hills, Mich., this fall, Francis said.
The devices raise legal questions in the United States.
Francis said automakers want the crash information from Sie-mens controllers because of the legal liability from airbag deployments.
Although not enough data can yet be captured to reconstruct an accident, Francis said, that could be possible in the future.