Ford Offers “False” Testimony; Alliance Swears to It

From the annals of chutzpah: On March 12, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers filed a friend of the court brief to head off a potentially disastrous breach in the auto industry’s carefully constructed dam around the causes of unintended acceleration (UA). To wit, there are no electronic causes of unintended acceleration. This phenomenon, as the industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have it, is solely caused by drivers hitting the wrong pedal and mechanical causes, such as pedal entrapment and bound Bowden cables. Electronic systems cannot have electronic malfunctions that can go undetected or cause UA, got that?

William T. Swigert, the Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, however, had no respect for industry/government mythology. He set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, after deciding that Ford’s victory in Stimpson v. Ford was won with “false and misleading” testimony and defrauded the federal government to boot, by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles. (See How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today)

NHTSA Proposes Rubber Stamp Brake Throttle Override Rule

For the second time in 40 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is attempting to upgrade the accelerator control standard by proposing that manufacturers be required to equip all vehicles with a brake override.  A brake override system cuts throttle voltage in electronic throttle control (ETC) vehicles when the brakes and throttle are in conflict. Variations of this type of fail-safe have been incorporated in a number of ETC equipped vehicles since the 1990s.

“We considered establishing a design requirement as the sole requirement for BTO, but the differences among BTO systems currently available from different vehicle manufacturers are significant enough that a design requirement by itself cannot effectively accommodate them all without being overly complex and/or design restrictive. By combining a relatively simple performance test with the basic equipment requirement described above, we can achieve a robust standard which is largely performance-based and minimally costly or burdensome.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is in direct reaction to the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) crisis, noting the August 2009 deaths of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in Lexus ES350 loaner that experienced a UA event at highway speed. But, the proposal appears to be more of a political response than a technological one. It ignores past recalls for UA events that are electronically caused; and it fails to base this upgrade on any statistical analysis. It merely codifies manufacturers’ current equipment without teasing out the differences between more effective and less effective brake override systems, such as the Toyota system, which doesn’t activate in some of the most frequently reported UA scenarios – when the driver’s foot is on the brake – or on no pedal. According to Toyota’s “Smart Stop Technology,” “the feature doesn’t engage if the brake pedal is depressed before the accelerator pedal. The driver must press the accelerator first and then depress the brake.”

Antony Anderson, a U.K.-based electrical engineering consultant who has studied unintended acceleration, says that the rule fundamentally misses the essential ingredient in any failsafe system – independence from the malfunctioning component. This is why many machines, from motorcycles to escalators, have separate kill switches that can independently remove power from the throttle, he says.

“For some reason, the automobile industry seems to think they don’t need to bother,” Anderson says. [The agency] “has a well-developed NHTSA-speak, where they are all the time trying to minimize the possibility of an electronic malfunction.”

“This just captures the state of the industry, not the state of the art,” says Neil Hanneman, an automotive engineer who have overseen automotive electronic designs and has consulted with Congress on Toyota unintended acceleration. “For it to really be a robust standard it would have to address things that have not been addressed yet – which will be with the electronics.”

Button Battery Ingestion on the Rise

Every three hours, a child under the age of 18 will show up at an emergency room to be treated for button battery ingestion and that rate is accelerating, according to a new study published in the online version of Pediatrics magazine this week. The first description of a button battery ingestion fatality in the medical literature was published in 1977, when a two and a half-year-old child swallowed a camera battery. Today, the nation’s emergency rooms see an estimated 3,289 children annually for button battery ingestion, according to Pediatric Battery-Related Emergency Department Visits in the United States, 1990-2009. Over the 20-year period of the study, the researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio examined a nationally representative sample from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and found that such visits had significantly increased during the last eight years of the study.

Who Owns Your Black Box Data?

When a crash triggers the Event Data Recorder, who has a right to the information? The police, the automaker, the insurer, the driver, and crash victims may all clamor for a peek into the black box to find out what really happened. Privacy advocates are launching a grassroots campaign to ensure that the black-box crash data stays securely in the hands of the vehicle owner. The National Motorists Association is calling on the public to sign a White House petition to include a provision in the new transportation bill that mandates a lockable cover to the EDR’s data port.

The NMA has until May 22 to gather 25,000 signatures, the threshold required to solicit a response from President Obama on the proposal to amend Senate Bill 1813. This measure within the federal transportation bill, which has had an agonizing and slow birth, requires all vehicles manufactured after September 2015 to be equipped with an EDR capable of capturing a wide range of data points under a specific list of crash conditions and within certain parameters of accuracy. The bill requires automakers to make third-party data readers available to the public and contains language covering the ownership of the data. Currently, 13 states address the privacy aspect of EDR data in their laws, but there is a lot of variability in what protections they afford vehicle owners.

“We say that when the customer drives off the lot with a new vehicle, the customer owns more than the vehicle -- they own the data that the vehicle generates. Under this law, there are no ways or means for customer to control it,” says Thomas M. Kowalick, chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ (IEEE) global standards development for Motor Vehicle Event Data Recorders.

CPSC Tries to Put the Lid on Fire Pots

In May 28, 2011 a 14 year-old boy in Riverhead, N.Y. suffered severe third-degree burns from a fire pot that exploded as he poured fuel into it.  Today he still struggles to recover. In June, Brent Miller, a 51-year-old property manager from Kissimmee, Florida, died after a 33-day hospitalization. Miller was pouring fuel into a fire pot, when it exploded, setting Miller, his wife, plants and other objects on the lanai aflame.

Scenarios such as these have prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate so-called fire pots, and the alcohol-based gel that fuels them. Fire pots are portable, decorative “lighting accents,” used both indoors and out. According to the CPSC, firepots were introduced into the marketplace in 2010, with 2.5 million units sold since then. They are often ceramic; some are partially enclosed by glass, and all contain an open stainless steel cup to hold the alcohol-based gel that produces a large flame. They are currently unregulated by voluntary or mandatory standards.

The Poker Face of Wall Street Calls NHTSA’s Bluff

We read uber-Risk Manager and author of The Poker Face of Wall Street, Aaron Brown’s post “Sympathy for the Flash Crash” in Minyanville, a business and investment information website, with great enthusiasm. It was fascinating to see a business pundit draw parallels between Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the flash crash of May 6, 2010, in which the Dow dropped about 1,000 points, but recovered almost immediately afterward. It was refreshing to read a financial columnist who actually understands what happened after NHTSA tried to wrest control over an elusive technical problem. He writes:

“…the net result was that the agency ordered the recall of 8 million vehicles and levied the maximum allowed civil fine, then waited for the problem to go away on its own before issuing a study denying there had been a problem in the first place because they looked really hard and couldn’t find one.

When you don’t understand a system, throwing experts at it to announce they can’t understand what happened so it must have been human error, is an unconvincing—but irresistible—tactic.”

While we part company with Mr. Brown over the possibility and advisability of implementing regulation to fix the problem, and a few other details, his viewpoint is worth a read. The good folks at Minyanville kindly gave us permission to re-print it.  (The original article can found here on Minyanville.)


Sympathy for the Flash Crash

Reprinted with permission from Minyanville

By Aaron Brown May 04, 2012 9:00 am

The entire modern world has become too complex for anyone to understand, and therefore, too complex for anyone to fix with top-down rulemaking.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL When I learned to drive 40 years ago, there were direct mechanical linkages between the car’s controls and its wheels and power train. When I turned the steering wheel, my muscle power (mediated by some levers and gears) changed the direction of the wheels. Accelerator, brakes, heater dial -- all affected things through direct physical actions. We make fun of someone who confuses effects with causes by saying he tries to slow down a car by moving the speedometer needle. But in that 1962 model VW bus, pushing down the speedometer needle would, in fact, increase friction on one rear wheel and reduce the speed of the car. The cable was too delicate to provide significant deceleration, but in physical principle it would work.

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