Senate Holds Hearings on NHTSA and House Releases Staff Report on GM Ignition Switch

Another big day for NHTSA as the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance will hold a hearings today at 2:30 pm titled “Oversight of and Policy Considerations for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” chaired by Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Earlier today House Committee on Energy and Commerce released its Staff Report on the GM ignition switch crises. 

Further Tinkering to EWR Unlikely to Make it More Useful

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing amendments to the Early Warning Reporting system, ostensibly to sharpen it as a tool in the Office of Defects Investigation’s back pocket, but outside researchers who regularly parse EWR data say that the proposal misses huge opportunities to actually make the system better. 

In 2000, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco. The Early Warning Reporting system, a major component of the legislation, requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage and warranty data to the government on a quarterly basis. The information was supposed to help government investigators identify defect trends before they become full-blown debacles.

And yet, nearly a decade later, EWR did nothing to prevent the Toyota Unintended Acceleration disaster that has resulted in deaths, injuries, property damage crashes, 11 recalls related to floor mat entrapment, trim panel interference and sticking accelerator pedals, the alleged causes of the unintended acceleration complaints. So, you might expect that the agency, which could never have seen that one coming – what with the numerous consumer petitions pleading for answers, serial investigations into the problem, and recalls that never seem to make the complaints go away – would adjust its EWR reporting categories accordingly.

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.

Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records

In mid-May, two engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation witnessed a 2003 Prius, owned by a high-ranking government official, accelerate on its own several times while on a test drive with the owner, without interference from the floor mat, without a stuck accelerator pedal or the driver’s foot on any pedal.

“They said: Did you see that?” the Prius owner recalled in a sworn statement.  “This vehicle is not safe, and this could be a real safety problem.”

They videotaped these incidents, excited that, at long last, they had caught a Toyota in the act of unintended acceleration, with a clear electronic cause. The engineers downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncommanded in the owner’s garage and admonished the owner to preserve his vehicle, untouched, for further research.

But three months later, the agency decided that there was no problem at all. The agency thanked the Prius owner for his time and said that it was not interested in studying his vehicle. This critical discovery was never made public. The agency did not even put this consumer complaint into its complaint database, until months later, at the request of Safety Research & Strategies.

Today, for the second time in as many months, SRS sued NHTSA for documents, alleging that NHTSA has improperly withheld material that has vital public interest.

NAS Report on Vehicle Electronics and UA: More Weak Tea

The National Academies of Science released today its long-awaited review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations, its regulatory policies and the agency’s next steps in dealing with electronic defects. The 16-member panel of volunteers, from a multitude of related disciplines, met 15 times over about 18 months, and were, at least, in attendance for presentations from 60 contributors.

The panel’s most significant critique was an acknowledgement that NHTSA is ill-equipped to deal with the new age of vehicle electronics:

“For NHTSA to engage in comprehensive regulatory oversight of manufacturer assurance plans and processes, as occurs in the aviation sector, would represent a fundamental change in the agency’s regulatory approach that would require substantial justification and resources (see Finding 4.6). The introduction of increasingly autonomous vehicles, as envisioned in some concepts of the electronics-intensive automobile, might one day cause the agency to consider taking a more hands-on regulatory approach with elements similar to those found in the aviation sector. At the moment, such a profound change in the way NHTSA regulates automotive safety does not appear to be a near-term prospect.”

Conclusions like these pepper the NAS report. Throughout The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics; Insights from Unintended Acceleration, the panel tries to have it both ways: to lay claim to a scientific process, without employing any actual science, to maintain that it was not second-guessing NHTSA’s investigations, but concluding that the agency was justified in closing them; to say that the Audi Sudden Unintended Acceleration controversy isn’t comparable to the Toyota debate because automotive technology has changed so drastically, and yet lean heavily on the 1989 NHTSA-commissioned report, An Examination of Sudden  Acceleration.

Makin’ It Fit, So We Can Acquit

We continue to see a mismatch between the facts of Toyota SUA and NHTSA’s representations.  And our level of concern continues to grow as the agency  makes public statements, issues reports and otherwise draws conclusions without presenting any supporting evidence.

Today, NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation Division Chief Jeffrey Quandt stood before the National Academies of Sciences panel looking into electronic throttle controls and told the room that Kevin Haggerty’s SUA event was caused by a sticky accelerator pedal. His incident is one of the flies in Toyota’s ointment, because the service technicians witnessed the vehicle racing in neutral. (Actually, Toyota service technicians have observed and – at times – replicated other SUA complaints – Haggerty’s incident has just been the most public.) To recap:

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

Toyota Washington Watch

We sat through the National Academies of Science first public meeting to tackle the Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration Study, a NHTSA-sponsored effort to look broadly at the issue, and we are happy to see that the agency has brought in some outside expertise.

This is truly an opportunity for the regulators to advance their knowledge base beyond the era of the mechanical automobile and into the age of automotive electronics, rapidly migrating from a vehicle’s entertainment center to its most basic functions of acceleration, braking and steering. It is critical to future policy setting and defect analysis.

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