Another Secret Chevy Volt Investigation?

One word journalists like to use in headlines about the all-electric Chevy Volt is “shock” – as in “Electric Shock: Is GM Really Losing $49,000 on Every Volt Sale?” and “Chevy Volt Continues to Shock and Awe After a Week on the Road” and “Chevrolet Volt: Electric sedan sends shock waves through auto industry.”

An electric vehicle is going to invite those metaphors, right? But three months ago, a driver from California made a complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that was literally shocking. On December 1, the driver received what was described as a significant electric shock from the gear shifter:

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Top Ten Reasons We’ll Miss Ray LaHood

We knew as far back as October 2011 that Ray LaHood was only going to be a one-term Secretary of Department of Transportation. And yesterday, he announced his imminent departure. Ray LaHood is a brilliant politician – all confidence and certainty, a loud combination of consumer-tough-guy-bluster-and-chamber-of-commerce-boosterism. He wasn’t afraid to take public stands no matter how misguided – we’ll give him that.

Admittedly, we are not close observers of the totality of LaHood’s activities. But we have traced LaHood’s fingerprints on technologically-rooted safety problems, and they have been a source of grim amusement. Without further introduction, we give you: SRS’s Top Ten Reasons We’ll Miss Ray LaHood

1. Top Illeist in the Obama Administration

An illeist is someone who refers to him or herself in the third person.

Like Ray telling PBS interviewer Gwen Ifill: “I think that Mr. Toyoda wouldn't be here today if it weren't for Ray LaHood calling him and our people going to Japan and telling them this is serious.” Or, Ray telling NPR talk show host Diane Rehm “Diane, you and I have had discussions about airline safety before on your show and you know that nobody cares as much about safety as Ray LaHood.”

Why does a person talk about himself that way? If you are under three years old, pediatricians considered a linguistic quirk of toddlerhood. If you are over thirty, psychologists consider it a narcissistic personality trait.

Move over, famous illeists, Richard Nixon, Herman Cain, Jimmy in Seinfeld and every professional athlete – and make room on the bench for Mister Ray LaHood. 

2. Outstanding Projectionist

When Ray LaHood is annoyed – hoo-boy, don’t you know it. In February 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released two reports purporting to resolve the question of whether electronics could be the source of Toyota Unintended Acceleration complaints. The agency kept a very tight lid on their release, handing them out to select journalists only an hour before the press conference. Both reports were lengthy, dense and highly redacted. But, writers gotta write and deadlines don’t move. Then Ray made the news show rounds complaining that the media hadn’t read the report. We read the reports, and re-read them, and we know, after listening to Ray’s characterization of its contents, that Ray did not read the reports, either.

Maybe in retirement, he’ll get around to it.

3. Undeterred by Facts

“The jury is back,” he announced. “The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period.”

This pronouncement, more than any Ray LaHood made in his four-year tenure, really fried our butts.

The twin reports, Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems and Technical Support to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Reported Toyota Motor Corporation Unintended Acceleration Investigation, actually said:

“Due to system complexity which will be described and the many possible electronic hardware and software systems interactions, it is not realistic to attempt to ‘prove’ that the ETCS-i cannot cause UAs. Today’s vehicles are sufficiently complex that no reasonable amount of analysis or testing can prove electronics and software have no errors. Therefore, absence of proof that the ETCS-i has caused a UA does not vindicate the system.”

The latter report, by the NASA Engineering Safety Center showed that there were several scenarios in which engine speed can be increased, RPMs can surge, and the throttle can be opened to various degrees in contradiction to the driver’s command, and not set a Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC). Among those causes of electronic malfunction in some Toyota vehicles the investigators found were tin whiskers in the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor (APPS) of potentiometer-type pedals. The NESC and NHTSA teams did not engage independent engineers with expertise in vehicle engine management design, validation and testing to assist them, they allowed Toyota and Exponent to guide this research. To boot, the lauded space agency never examined components from any vehicles that experienced high-speed UA events – the very focus of the lengthy technical tome. 

LaHood’s willingness to elide the facts in favor of a sound-bite that puts the matter to rest hurt every Toyota owner.

 4. Effective Policymaker

A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

Ford Steering Problems Come into Focus

Headed to the top of the Early Warning Reporting charts with a bullet: 2012 Ford Focus steering failures. In the last four quarters, which includes the first half of 2012, there have been about 13 injury claims. Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corp., who regularly trawls this data, says that it is unusual to see so many steering-related claims in the 2012 model year, given the total for this very large fleet – one of the top-sellers for 2012 – so far.

The 2012 Ford Focus, is an all-new redesign, with – you guessed it: Electronic Power-Assisted Steering (EPAS). Electronic Power Steering (EPS) is one of our favorite automotive technology advancements plagued with failures when introduced – just ask Honda, GM and Toyota. All three have battled EPS malfunctions. The latter two prompted defect investigations which prompted one Technical Service Bulletin and one recall. The EPS issue is yet another example of automotive technology advancing without functional safety standards and beyond the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ability to regulate or enforce.

A Ford video on the Focus EPAS purrs about how the sensors achieve steering “that feels just right” and “helps keep you firmly planted and in control.” (Watch

Perhaps Ford's EPAS keeps drivers planted a little too firmly – once the steering goes, it’s pretty hard to turn the wheel, according to owner reports. Consumer complaints show that the problem is a right-out-of-the-box phenomenon, with drivers generally reporting that within a few minutes of starting operation, power steering fails and Steering Assist Fault displays on the dash. (There’s another category of high-speed wander-type complaints, too.) Some had their first loss-of-steering-control incident within the first week of ownership, and many have had multiple occurrences. The failure usually occurs at low speed, and yet, there are situations in which losing steering is mighty dangerous, like when turning into traffic. About 20 owners of 2012 Focus vehicles have lodged complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations. One West Virginia owner reported: “While backing out of a driveway the steering system failed. I rolled down a hill and into a wooded area. The system gave an indicator light of steering system failure and also the braking system did not engage. I lost complete control of the vehicle.”

Lexus RX Floor Mat Recall: NHTSA’s House of Cards Adds a New Floor

An examination of NHTSA records surrounding a June recall for floor mat interference in 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used mischaracterized data to buttress its request that Toyota recall the floor mats. Further, NHTSA ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause for the unintended acceleration complaints consumers filed with the agency.

These documents affirm the pattern that has characterized NHTSA’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations – both informal and official -- since 2004:

  1. Dismiss the consumer’s description of the event, unless it conforms to the agency’s presumption of driver error or mechanical interference.
  2. Accept the explanations of the automaker or dealership of driver error or mechanical interference as completely accurate – even in the absence of any empirical evidence to support the contention.
  3. Dismiss any evidence of an electronic cause
  4. Settle for a limited, ineffective recall.
  5. Wait for another high-profile incident, consumer petition or accumulation of complaints to repeat the process

SRS has been examining the factual underpinnings of NHTSA’s actions in Toyota Unintended Acceleration since 2009. As we have in the past, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to Toyota’s most recent floor mat recall. We received 58 pages of documents, some of which were redacted under FOIA exemptions for confidential business information, personal identifying information and sections deemed “deliberative process.”

As we don’t know what information lies behind the redactions, we cannot assess the totality of the evidence behind NHTSA’s decision to seek a floor mat recall. However, what the unredacted portions show is there is scant evidence of a widespread floor mat interference problem and there is even less logic in the complaints NHTSA claims support its argument that a problem with the mats exists. But, there is much more evidence in the narratives of consumer complaints suggesting electronic causes of UA in 2010 Lexus RX 350.

The Pedal Error Error

If the Toyota Unintended Acceleration has taught us anything, it’s the importance of examining NHTSA’s process before accepting its conclusions. The authority of the federal government automatically confers, in large measure, a public (including the mainstream media) acceptance of its pronouncements of scientific certitude. Few take the time to study their foundations. To this end, SRS has devoted more time and resources to obtaining the agency’s original source documents, data and communications around investigations, rulemakings and NHTSA-sponsored reports than we care to count. We have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in pursuit of these informational bases.

Another thing we have learned: NHTSA really doesn’t want the public to know how it does what it does. Our FOIA requests have morphed into FOIA lawsuits (three and counting), as the agency either denies us information that is public or claims to have none, even when the crumbs NHTSA’s FOIA staff toss to us show unequivocally that, in fact, they do have the information.

And that brings us to Pedal Application Errors, NHTSA’s last nail in the Electronically-Caused UA coffin. This report made a number of strong claims regarding who is likely to make a pedal application error and how it is likely to occur. They do not bode well for any woman of a certain age who has the misfortune to be behind the wheel of an electronically caused UA. The report’s writers based on a variety of data sources, including crashes from the Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (MVCCS), the North Carolina state crash database, a media review of pedal misapplication news stories and the insights garnered from a panel of rehabilitation specialists. Naturally, we wanted to look at all these data, and we requested them.

The response from the government, to put it kindly, was less than complete. NHTSA claimed that it didn’t have any of the underlying data, except the list of crashes from the MVCCS. It sent us the transcript of the one-and-a-half day meeting of rehabilitation specialists and Dr. Richard Schmidt, that prodigious peddler of the all-purpose, wholly unsupported and unscientific pedal misapplication theory the auto industry – and NHTSA – loves.

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.”

Technical Upstart Schools NHTSA on Toyota Electronics

Why can’t consumers get with the program?

Toyota – even with its technical difficulties, bad press and a tsunami that devastated Japan last year – is still a very wealthy corporation with a multi-billion-dollar bottom line. We shudder to contemplate how many millions the automaker spent on public relations, intimidation campaigns, advertisements, image consultants, outside counsel and scientists for hire. The money was laid on thickly enough to keep things cozy on almost all fronts.

And yet….it cannot stop the maddening trickle of unintended acceleration crashes into supermarkets, restaurants and other benighted retail establishments. And it cannot stop the drip, drip, drip of questions from consumers. We are still reading Toyota UA complaints with great interest, and recently we came upon a complaint from a 2004 Tacoma owner from Hopkinton, New Hampshire who witnessed a UA event in his driveway – much like two Office of Defects Investigation engineers did about a year ago in the presence of Prius owner Joseph McClelland (see Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records)

Like Mr. McClelland, an electrical engineer who happened to be the director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Electric Reliability, this gentleman is not a typical consumer. He is, by his own description, an engineer who wrote a book on troubleshooting servo systems. Like Southern Illinois University Automotive Electronics Professor David Gilbert, another curious Toyota owner with the technical skills to run some tests, he has noted the lack of fail safes and redundancies and the high risk to safety.

Here is his April 18 report to NHTSA:

Another CO Smart Key Death... and what Happens when Smart Keys Collide?

Tell us again why electronic keys are an automotive technology advance?  Apparently, they’re so great that our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has to re-write the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 (in a ham-handed way) to accommodate them.  And so super-duper that these new electronic ignition system vehicles are introducing new hazards that are killing and injuring consumers.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office is investigating last week’s carbon monoxide poisoning deaths of Adele Ridless and Mort Victor. The couple is suspected to have succumbed to a build-up of carbon monoxide emanating from their Mercedes with a keyless ignition, parked in an attached garage. The sheriff’s office declined comment pending the outcome of their investigation.

Toyota – whose clever keyless ignition system has been implicated in at least two other carbon monoxide deaths – last month issued a Technical Service Bulletin noting that two “Smart Keys” from different vehicles in close proximity can knock the system for a loop. The February 24 notice covers some 2011 and 2012 Lexus models:

“Some 2011 and 2012 Lexus models may exhibit a condition where the Smart Key system is inoperative when another vehicle’s Smart key is in or near the vehicle. The following functions may also be affected: wireless remote operation, Smart access, and Smart start. The combination meter multi-information display may show the message: “Key not detected” when attempting to start vehicle and when driving.”

What are they talking about? NHTSA and the automakers have told us that the key in an electronic system is an invisible code inside the vehicle’s ignition module. So does that mean if you park next to another Toyota or some other manufacturer with an electronic ignition, your shiny new Lexus won’t start? Wow, that’s going to make parking in public lots a whole lot tougher.

How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today

Last month, we reported a Florida circuit judge’s extraordinary decision to set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, based on evidence and testimony that Ford had concealed an electronic cause of unintended acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and its own expert witnesses. Judge William T. Swigert’s 51-page decision in Stimpson v Ford also outlines how decades of the automaker’s dissembling to limit its liability in civil lawsuits helped to mire the thinking about root causes of unintended acceleration in the limited context of mechanical agency, even as the electronic sophistication – and the potential for defects and unanticipated interactions between systems – in vehicles grew.

That a large corporation would conceal a deadly problem to protect its interests is hardly news – although the systemic and exacting strategies Ford employed in this case are notable. What makes this story important is how Ford also re-wrote the history on this issue and helped to shape the agency’s thinking about an ongoing problem for decades hence. We have only the public record regarding Toyota UA at our disposal – and precious little of that has actually been made public – so we can’t know how Toyota has assessed its own UA problem; if and what parallels in corporate misdirection might be drawn between Ford and Toyota. But one can see how Ford’s actions back in the 1980s still resonate with the agency today and how it has kept NHTSA from advancing its knowledge in electronic causes of UA that are not already detected by the vehicle diagnostics.

The Emergence of a Defect in the Age of Audi SUA

As recounted in the Judge Swigert’s order, the history of Ford and unintended acceleration goes back to 1973, when Ford’s cruise control was under development. Ford Engineer William Follmer “warned about the risk posed by electromagnetic interference, and cautioned that ‘to avoid disaster’ it was imperative to incorporate failsafe protection against EMI in the system’s design.” In 1976, two Ford engineers obtained a patent describing a design for the cruise control system's printed circuit board to reduce the risk of a sudden acceleration posed by EMI.

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