National Academies offers ideas on NHTSA capabilities in vehicle electronics

  • 20-Jan-2012 04:13 EST
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Toyota issued a fix for "sticky" accelerator pedals on Feb. 1, 2010.

Though supportive of the decision by NHTSA, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to close its investigation related to cases of unintended acceleration in some Toyota models, an arm of the National Academies has issued a report describing as "troubling" NHTSA's inability to convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics.

Input from the National Academies was requested by NHTSA in the aftermath of the 2009-2010 reports of sudden acceleration. NHTSA attributed the cause to drivers pressing the accelerator pedal by mistake and to two other issues (pedals sticking or becoming entrapped by floor mats)—the latter two remedied in subsequent safety recalls. NHTSA concluded that errant electronic throttle control systems were not a plausible cause; however, according to the National Academies, "persistent questions led the agency to ask for further investigation by NASA, which supported NHTSA's conclusion about cause."

A subgroup of the National Academies, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), said in a Jan. 18 press release about release of its report: "To respond effectively and confidently to claims of defects in the more complex electronic systems, both in present-day and future vehicles, NHTSA will require additional specialized technical expertise."

"It's unrealistic to expect NHTSA to hire and maintain personnel who have all of the specialized technical and design knowledge relevant to this constantly evolving field," said Louis Lanzerotti, Distinguished Research Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Chair of the committee that wrote the report. "A standing advisory committee is one way NHTSA can interact with industry and with technical experts in electronics to keep abreast of these technologies and oversee their safety. Neither the automotive industry, NHTSA, nor motorists can afford a recurrence of something like the unintended acceleration controversy."

The standing technical advisory panel should be composed of individuals with backgrounds central to the design, development, and safety assurance of automotive electronics systems, according to the TRB—specifically, experts in software and systems engineering, human factors, and electronics hardware. The group further recommends that the panel "be consulted on relevant technical matters that arise throughout the agency's vehicle safety programs, including regulatory reviews, defect investigation processes, and research needs assessments."

In addition, according to the TRB, NHTSA should conduct "a comprehensive review of its Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) to determine the specific capabilities needed to monitor and investigate flaws in electronics-intensive vehicles." The report also recommends that NHTSA's research program assist ODI in finding ways to improve consumer complaint reports and other data that the office relies on to identify safety defects in vehicles and to assess their possible causes.

The report evaluates a number of NHTSA's rule-making and research initiatives, including the installation of event data recorders (EDRs) on all automobiles to inform safety investigations. EDRs should be commonplace in all new vehicles, the report concurs. It also endorses NHTSA's plan to conduct research in areas such as layouts for accelerator and brake pedals and intuitive designs for keyless ignition systems. It recommends that this study be a precursor to a broader human-factors research initiative in collaboration with the automotive industry to ensure that electronics systems and drivers interact safely.

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