Thoroughly Modern Tire Dealer – Not.

Bob Ulrich’s column If the TIA is the Puppet Master is NHTSA the Puppet? in February 14ths Modern Tire Dealer, casts me as an impatient crusader who has single-handedly ginned up a non-existent controversy about the dangers of tire age and used tires in the service of trial lawyers.

The issue of tire age surfaced in the U.S. in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone Wilderness ATX. In 2003, NHTSA fulfilled a Congressional mandate by initiating a tire age rulemaking, which sought manufacturers’ comments. The industry did not exactly distinguish itself. Its responses ranged from denial of any problem to ignorance of testing, analysis or the very concept of tire age.

Our research showed that industry was studying rubber oxidation and heat as early as the 1930s. We also located a pair of German studies from the 1980s which concluded that tires failed at a greater rate after six years and recommended manufacturers alert consumers to prevent potential crashes. We identified the vehicle and tire makers who followed that advice, publishing tire age recommendations as early as the 1990s. Not one industry representative alerted the agency to wealth of information it had about tire age.   

Tire Aging: Is NHTSA Ready to Make Policy?

Last month, at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual government-industry conference, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety standards engineer presented a summary of the agency’s tire aging work, which continues despite not producing any regulatory changes.

The issue that took center stage more than a decade ago, in the wake of the Ford Firestone rollover scandal. The deadly Firestone tires at the center of the controversy met the federal safety standards but nonetheless were de-treading at high rates after several years in service.  In 2001, Congress suggested that the agency consider the feasibility of a tire aging test, and the agency and Ford embarked on a series of experiments to create an artificial oven-aging test for tires. In 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users directed the Secretary of Transportation document NHTSA’s progress on tire aging research, and its findings and recommendations. The agency’s 2007 report to Congress did not make any policy recommendations, but did allow that it was “evaluating the feasibility of a regulation related to tire aging by analyzing the safety problem (tire aging as a significant causal factor in crashes) and potential benefits and costs of a requirement for minimum performance based on an aging method.”

Six years later, no policy and the tire aging docket NHTSA opened in 2005 is officially closed for comments. But the agency (and Safety Research & Strategies -- see SRS Tire Safety) continues to file the results of its tire age research periodically. (The most recent agency submission was in July 2012, a report entitled: “Tire Aging Testing Phase 5.”) Could NHTSA’s Dr. Merisol Medri’s SAE presentation herald the arrival of a rulemaking? Her Powerpoint was not released, (click here for a copy) but our ears perked up at this slide:

“Based on analysis of data from 2005-2007 including databases (NMVCCS, GES, CDS), 90 fatalities and over 3,200 injuries occurred annually as the result of crashes that were probably caused by tire aging or where tire aging was a significant factor.”

This statistic stands out against the agency’s numerical analysis offered in the 2007 Research Report to Congress on Tire Aging: “From 1994 to 2004, NHTSA estimates that about 400 fatalities, annually, may be attributed to tire failures of all types.”

Doing the rough math -- does this mean that about quarter of the annual tire-related fatalities are due to tire age? And, how did NHTSA arrive at that figure? Tire Identification Numbers (TIN) – the only way to discern a tire’s age – are not available in the public version of some of those datasets. (We are aware that NHTSA has begun to collect TINs for some sub-sets of crash data.) According to Medri the agency will be publishing a more detailed account of its research in a new report that will be published in the tire aging docket, at some unspecified time.

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

Fixated on Floor Mats

Last month, NHTSA kicked a two-year-old investigation into unintended acceleration in Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan vehicles up to an Engineering Analysis. The suspected defect – floor mats that can entrap the accelerator pedal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Analysis:

“A heel blocker in the floor pan provides a platform that may lift an unsecured mat into contact with the pedal. Ford introduced new pedals as a running change early in model year (MY) 2010 vehicles. Analysis of complaints received by ODI and Ford show elevated rates of pedal entrapment incidents in MY 2008 through early 2010 production vehicles. Incidents typically occur following hard pedal applications to pass slower traffic or when merging into faster traffic. Drivers allege continued high engine power after releasing the accelerator pedal and difficulty braking, including reports that the incident was controlled by shifting to neutral or turning the engine off. Drivers and service technicians reference observing evidence of mat interference or note unsecured Ford or aftermarket all weather floor mats in post-incident inspections.”

This action was followed by a high-profile $17.4 million civil penalty that the agency levied against Toyota for failing to launch a timely recall for floor mat interference involving Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles. This was a NHTSA-influenced recall of mysterious origins since the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire complaints didn’t seem to support a floor mat interference defect trend (see A Defect Remedy Delayed) – although the Lexus RX has certainly been plagued with all manner of sudden acceleration complaints.

These two events sent us digging through the recall and investigation archives to get a better handle on the greater context. There seems to have been an awful lot of floor mat-related brouhahas in the last few years. It seemed odd that floor mats – which exist solely to provide a barrier between muddy shoes and the carpeted floor pan – should suddenly be so troublesome. In the old days, rubber floor mats were rarely secured with retention clips, as they are now. In one of its responses to the 2010 Ford Fusion Preliminary Evaluation, the automaker reminded NHTSA:

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.

Another Domino Falls: GM Adds Tire Age Warning

On July 3, 2010, three generations of the Taylor family were returning from a family vacation in Disneyland to their home in Phoenix, when the right rear tire on their 2003 Chevy Trailblazer experienced a catastrophic tread separation. John Taylor, a retiree who worked all 38 years of his career at General Motors, lost control of the vehicle on I-10, about 45 minutes from home. The Trailblazer rolled over, fatally crushing Taylor and killing his 8-year-old grandson Quinn Levi, who was ejected when the third-row seat belt unlatched. Taylor’s wife, Eileen, his son-in-law, Bill, and his daughter Susanne Levi, who bought the Trailblazer with her father’s employee discount, suffered upper body injuries. The youngest son, secured in a child safety seat, was unharmed.

The tire that failed was a seven-year-old full-sized spare that had been rotated into service in 2007. Before that, it stayed stored in the spare well, right up near the engine exhaust system, where the hot exhaust pipe, combined with the brutally hot climate of Phoenix, accelerated the thermo-oxidation of the BF Goodrich Rugged Trail tire, diminishing its strength.

“This was the perfect storm” says Phoenix attorney Curt Clausen, who represents the Taylor-Levi family in a civil lawsuit against manufacturer General Motors.

Moving Tire Recalls into the 21st Century

Safety Research & Strategies has urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to add Tire Identification Numbers to a newly mandated web portal to identify recalls.

In September, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the possible changes to the provisions regarding Early Warning Reporting data. It also proposed requiring automobile manufacturers to submit Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) of specifically recalled vehicles, and maintain records of the recall remedy status of each specific vehicle. This was a requirement of the Motor Vehicle Safety Improvement Act, contained within the highway re-authorization bill known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, MAP-21, for short.

The recall statute mandates that NHTSA require that motor vehicle safety recall information be made available to the public on the Internet, and authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to require each manufacturer to do so. In the NPRM, NHTSA explained that it already had a website where consumers can look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number.  It proposed to simply add a VIN field to its current search capacity.

The authors of MAP- 21, however, forgot to require the same of tire manufacturers. SRS has submitted comments to this docket suggesting that the agency add a TIN-look-up, along with a VIN.

The omission is another sad chapter in the history of the Tire Identification Number (TIN) and tire safety. The Tire Identification Number has its origins in a Rubber Manufacturers’ Association strategy to seize the regulatory reins from the National Highway Safety Bureau, predecessor to NHTSA, as the tire identification standard was promulgated more than 40 years ago. It was established to help consumers identify tires in a recall. But, as is the case in many rulemakings, industry fought hard to mold the regulations to its own ends and convenience.

Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear

Is it time for Goodyear to just give up the ghost on the G159 tire? Sure, they had a good run for a while, selling the tire to the motor home industry – even though the tire was designed for urban delivery vehicles and speed-rated for only 65 mile per hour continuous use. And when those tires failed on motor homes, causing rollovers, catastrophic injuries, deaths and lawsuits, Goodyear had a good run limiting the damage by keeping the damning documents from spreading from one litigant to another – or just keeping them to themselves. But their run seems to be about done, for the tire and the legal strategy. The Chief Justice of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, Roslyn O. Silver, has issued a lengthy and devastating sanctions order against Goodyear, and attorneys Graeme Hancock of Fennemore Craig PC and Basil Musnuff formerly of Roetzel & Andress, who represented the tiremaker against the product liability claims lodged by the Haeger family.  Judge Silver’s order starts like this: “Litigation is not a game. It is the time-honored method of seeking the truth, finding the truth, and doing justice. When a corporation and its counsel refuse to produce directly relevant information an opposing party is entitled to receive, they have abandoned these basic principles in favor of their own interests. The little voice in every attorney's conscience that murmurs turn over all material information was ignored.”

Why is Toyota Recalling the Land Cruiser?

The Toyota Unintended Acceleration floor mat recalls are now assuming the sprawling Del-Boca-Vista proportions of a seniors-only condo development in Sarasota. Last week, Toyota announced Phase 12 of its accelerator pedal modification and floor mat replacement recall. The newest vehicles to join the 14 million that have been recalled worldwide for unintended acceleration are 10,500 Toyota Land Cruisers in the 2008-2011 model years.

The remedy involves modifying the rigid plastic accelerator pedal, and equipping the vehicle with newly designed Toyota All Weather Floor Mats. 

 Now every time we hear about another Toyota floor mat recall, we kick ourselves for not buying rubber futures. But, this one has us wondering. Number one: there has been no public announcement of the recall. It is nowhere to be found on Toyota’s website.  Two: all of the documents in the public file for Recall 12V305 are not for the Land Cruiser, but for this summer’s recall of the Lexus RX350 and 450. Unintended Acceleration Recall Number 11, you may remember, was triggered by a NHTSA inquiry:

 “NHTSA approached Toyota regarding this issue late last month after the agency observed an increase in consumer complaints and other reports regarding pedal entrapment in these vehicles. When Toyota confirmed last week that it had received a significant volume of complaints on the same issue, NHTSA asked the manufacturer to conduct a recall.”

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.”

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