NHTSA under fire

  • 04-Mar-2010 06:18 EST
Pedal_Assembly - MCM size.jpg

Toyota in February introduced an anti-friction measure for accelerator pedals on recalled models.

The withering national publicity focused on Toyota's handling of complaints about sudden acceleration has prompted congressional concern about the capability of NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Among the issues being debated is whether the agency has the engineering know-how in-house to quickly and thoroughly respond to allegations of safety defects.

Two separate hearings in two separate House committees took place the last week of February, with additional hearings scheduled (but too late for coverage in this issue). Remedial legislation—which is a certainty—could rival the 2000 TREAD Act in breadth and depth.

Much of the congressional furor has focused on NHTSA's handling of auto-defects investigations. But some longtime NHTSA watchers with no pro-industry bias think some of the criticism is unfair. Adrian Lund, President, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said: "In the furor of this, and Toyota's foot dragging, NHTSA is getting a bit of a bad rap. People underestimate how difficult it is to find something that is a defect, where something happens rarely. For NHTSA to issue a recall, it has to be able to document a real problem. These defects are hard to find and it is not as if nothing is happening. Every year, NHTSA recalls millions of cars."

Although the congressional reaction has lacked a certain amount of perspective—Lund called it "over the top"—at hearings in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 24 Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican, promised to introduce legislation to require automakers to publish additional safety data and for NHTSA to put it on its website. Rep. Paul Kanjorksi of Pennsylvania, the number two Democrat on the committee, quickly offered to co-sponsor the bill. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was testifying, promised, "I will work with you on that."

The bill could end up as imposing as the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act of 2000, enacted after the Firestone/Ford Explorer debacle. That bill required NHTSA to complete 15 separate rulemaking actions, three reports, two studies, and one strategic plan.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and president Emeritus of the advocacy group Public Citizen, suggested at the hearings that any legislation should force NHTSA to update its requirements on event data recorders and make their installation mandatory instead of voluntary. She also proposed revisions to three safety standards in addition to giving NHTSA the authority to issue criminal penalties instead of just civil penalties, which is now the case.

LaHood didn't help to fill the "perspective gap" as he was unable to answer a number of questions with regard to the Toyota issue and NHTSA generally. Asked by Committee Chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) why NHTSA waited until August 2009 to investigate the alleged Toyota acceleration problem after receiving more than 1000 consumer complaints prior to that date, LaHood answered that he would "put it on the record when I can get the facts." Asked how many of NHTSA's authorized 632 positions were currently vacant, LaHood said he did not know.

Promising a complete review of electronic accelerators, LaHood ran into skepticism over whether the agency had the technical expertise to accomplish that credibly. The DOT secretary pointed out that NHTSA employed 125 engineers. "We do have electrical engineers," he quickly added and suggested NHTSA would be hiring additional engineers if Congress approved President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request, which would increase NHTSA's budget by $5 million to $878 million. That increase would be used to hire 66 additional staffers.

Getting into the debate on engineering capability at NHTSA, Claybrook later disputed LaHood and stated there are neither electrical nor software engineers on staff at the agency. She argued that NHTSA was underfunded, a point sharpened by Rep. John Mica (R-FL) who pointed out that the Obama administration has requested only a $5 million increase for NHTSA for fiscal 2011. That is the smallest request ever asked for by any administration, he said.

One of the three standard revisions Claybrook promoted was for electronic accelerator systems. But no one mentioned the checkered history of that standard. NHTSA proposed in 2002 to revise Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 124, Accelerator Control Systems, but canceled the effort in 2004 to do more research, after the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Toyota raised questions about NHTSA's proposed test methods.

When it was established in 1972, FMVSS 124 guided manufacturers' development of accelerator systems, which then were almost wholly mechanical. The standard requires the rapid return of the throttle to the idle position (within 1 s for light vehicles and 2 s for heavy vehicles) when the accelerator pedal is released. When electronic systems began to come into vogue in the late 1980s, NHTSA began to get queries from manufacturers as to whether 124 applied to those newer systems. NHTSA always answered "yes."

Rather than deal with individual queries piecemeal, the agency took the first step toward revising 124 in 1995 with the intent of adding specific provisions for electronic accelerator controls. A request for comment was followed by a public technical workshop in 1997. Nothing more happened until July 23, 2002 when a Federal Register notice appeared containing a proposed rule with changes to FMVSS 124. The notice said the modifications, which would have specifically applied the standard to electronic systems, "draw on the suggestions" made by the predecessor group to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in 1997 but "differ in several important ways." The proposed changes to 124 included three new test procedures to better address different types of powertrains. A manufacturer would have been able to choose any one of the test procedures as a basis for compliance, and a "universal" chassis dynamometer test was included as a last resort in cases where the other procedures were inapplicable.

In response to that proposed rule, Robert Strassburger, Vice President, Vehicle Safety and Harmonization, at the Allilance, sent a letter to then NHTSA Adminstrator Jeffrey W. Runge on Oct. 2, 2002, saying: "While the Alliance generally agrees with the proposed changes to the current regulation, there are aspects of the proposal that will preclude compliance with some existing accelerator control systems. Furthermore, the proposed test options, which the Alliance supports, do not adequately address the unique test conditions required by certain advanced (e.g., diesel and hybrid) powertrains."

The Alliance wanted inclusion of a direct measurement of powertrain output to the drive wheels and later amended that to suggest that the powertrain output test should measure vehicle driving speed—i.e., "creep speed"—rather than output power or torque. Toyota took a similar tact, except it suggested a somewhat different creep speed test procedure.

More than two years later, in November 2004, NHTSA suddenly withdrew the proposed rule. It said the agency wanted to conduct its own tests to provide additional support for the use of a dynamometer for measurement of powertrain output (or possibly creep speed measurements) and demonstrate the feasibility of conducting compliance tests for all suggested approaches.

Wade Newton, an Alliance spokesman, declined to comment beyond the Alliance's publicly available federal docket comments. Cindy Knight, his Toyota counterpart, was unable to provide any light on Toyota's thinking at the time.

FMVSS 124 is mentioned in NHTSA's 2009 semi-annual regulatory schedule, which indicates that a proposed rule, ostensibly different from the one issued in 2002, was scheduled for August 28, 2009. No proposed rule ever appeared. Nor is it clear whether NHTSA ever did any of the research it referred to in the 2004 Federal Register notice canceling the proposed rule. Karen Aldana, a NHTSA spokeswoman, had no information for the status of changes to 124.

And that is where the electronic accelerator standard stood when the first flash of publicity from the Toyota issue hit the front pages.

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