Slow Burn: Chevy Volt Fires

That DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is always yakking about transparency – at his confirmation hearing, at budget hearings, about airline fees, and business flight plans. During the U.S. House of Representative’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration hearings in February 2010, when Congressman Ed Markey asked the Secretary of Transportation:

“What do you think about the public in terms of them providing – being provided with more information regarding potential safety defects that automakers tell the department about even before an investigation is opened or a recall is announced?

LaHood replied: “Need for transparency.  The more information we can give the public, the better.”

Unless…..the defect is really bad, and the press will be on it like white on rice and it involves a major automaker, whose fortunes are tightly entwined with the government. Yes, we’re looking at you General Motors. (Or, as some would have it, Government Motors.)

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.

Death and Drive-By-Wire: New Evidence Shows Early Deaths were Ignored

We have been watching with great interest as NHTSA has suddenly proclaimed 34 deaths in Toyota sudden unintended acceleration incidents, (when nary but one has been officially counted in eight investigations) and Toyota has doubled down on nothing-is-wrong-but-floor-mats-and-sticky-accelerator-pedals. We are pleased to see that NHTSA, under the current administration, is now taking the fatality reports more seriously and Toyota’s claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

NHTSA Document and Data Secrecy and Accessibility

Withholding critical data, the erosion of public accessibility to public information, the neglect of government documents-these have been the hallmarks of the Bush administration. Secrecy-in all of its forms-has been a prominent feature of the continuing stream of scandals out of Washington, D.C.  Most have centered on national security, but lately, administration appointees have thrown a cloak of secrecy over motor vehicle safety information. The effect will likely be felt for many years to come.

In the following three stories, which were published in SRS' The Safety Record (V2, Issue 4 March / April 2007), Safety Research & Strategies examines data secrecy, the new limits on public accessibility to important NHTSA documents, and the neglect of historical data sources.  Alone, these issues are significant. Combined, they have potentially devastating effect on the future of safety regulation and defect trend detection and remediation.

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