Honda’s Revenge Against the Pilot Owner Who Sparked a Recall

In the press, Carrie Carvalho was portrayed as a hero – an average consumer who successfully petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate inadvertent braking in Honda Pilots. In March, after NHTSA bumped up its investigation to an Engineering Analysis, Honda announced that it was recalling nearly 200,000 Pilot and Acura MDX and RL vehicles for a mis-manufactured bolt which could send incorrect signals to the electronic stability control system.

But file this story under: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Three years after the Arlington, Mass. woman first experienced her 2005 Honda Pilot braking to a hard stop on its own from 45 mph, her Pilot is parked in the driveway and her legal case is parked in the hands of attorneys, with no end in sight.

“This is absurd,” she says. “Basically, the fact that Honda is still reluctant to take responsibility is unacceptable.”

Carvalho and her attorney are now contemplating their next move, including filing a 93A Civil Complaint – so named for the Chapter in the Massachusetts state legal code outlawing “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”

Behind the headlines, Carvalho has struggled, yet persisted in the face of a dangerous defect that neither Honda nor the Newton, Mass. dealership, Honda Village, were willing to repair correctly and of insulting compensation offers. The history of the defect itself illustrates the ever-growing catalogue of electronic component failures that trigger unintended consequences, wresting vehicle control away from the driver without warning and the need for a functional safety requirement for automotive electronics.

On October 10, 2010, Carvalho was in the passenger seat of her 2005 Honda Pilot, with her friend at the wheel, and her friend’s 8 year old son and Massachusetts State Representative Sean Garballey in the passenger seats. Suddenly, the car exhibited a very loud groan and the brakes engaged bringing the car to a dead stop in the middle of the road.  The vehicles behind her Pilot had to swerve to avoid hitting the car.  The driver had his foot on the accelerator the whole time; the brakes engaged on their own.

A couple of minutes later, the Pilot’s brakes again engaged with no command from the driver. Carvalho called AAA to tow the car to Honda Village in Newton, MA.  There, Carvalho began a series of fruitless negotiations with the dealership. According to Carvalho, service manager, Tony Saltimacchia claimed that “the engineers at American Honda had never heard of this problem and had no diagnostic codes for it.”  But Carvalho’s online research produced plenty of consumer complaints and no confirmed repair.

With the aid of an attorney, Carvalho requested that Honda Village to take back the vehicle and meet the balance of the loan. The dealership offered only a trade-in, with the leftover balance rolled into a new loan. The dealership also offered to repair the Pilot’s Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA), but would offer no assurances that it would actually fix the problem. Carvalho’s research showed that according to consumer complaints, various repairs by other dealerships didn’t stop the spontaneous braking. Multiple consumers also reported that Honda denied knowing that such a problem existed.

After a month-long stand-off with Honda Village, Carvalho decided she would look for answers elsewhere. On November 16, she filed a complaint with NHTSA and the next day she told Honda Village that she would be towing the vehicle to an independent mechanic. Within a half-an-hour, Carvalho appeared at the dealership, only to find her vehicle dismantled and up on a lift for unauthorized work. After Carvalho filed a police report, Honda Village turned over her vehicle. The Pilot was evaluated by an independent mechanic and towed to her house, where it has remained.

Carvalho was having even less success with American Honda Motor. She says it took six months before Honda made an offer. In April 2011, the manufacturer sent a field specialist and an attorney to inspect her vehicle. They drove the Pilot away, returned two hours later with nothing to report. For another year, Honda made several offers to replace the ABS/VSA/TZS modulator and the brake switch in the vehicle to “correct” her “concerns” but, refused to warranty the repair, and only if she signed a non-disclosure agreement. 

A year later, the Pilot still sitting in the driveway, undriveable, Carvalho had stopped her insurance policy. But she had not given up on a resolution. Carvalho took the unusual step of petitioning NHTSA to investigate the inadvertent braking defect in Honda Pilot vehicles. By the time of her April 16, 2012 petition, Carvalho had found a slew of new complaints to NHTSA.

In June 2012, the agency granted her request. As part of that investigation, NHTSA required Honda to extract the VSA modulator and replace it with a new one – even though, officials told her, this was not considered a repair for the inadvertent braking problem. In December 2012, another local dealership, Cambridge Honda replaced the VSA module, installed a new battery, two new front tires, three new wiper inserts and new inner tie rods, just to render it capable for a test drive and capable of passing the state inspection. After a five mile test drive, Honda directed the dealership to release the vehicle to Carvalho as safe. Carvalho refused, saying that the vehicle could not be considered safe because NHTSA told her that the new VSA was not a repair and because neither Honda nor NHTSA had determined the appropriate repair. Eventually, Cambridge Honda towed the vehicle back to her house.

In February 2013, Honda made its final offer to Carvalho. Rejecting her request for compensation for losing use of her vehicle for more than 18 months, Honda countered that in replacing the VSA at NHTSA’s direction, it had repaired the Pilot for free, and offered to give her $100 to cover the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles registration reinstatement fee. Carvalho has rejected this as inadequate. For one, she says, NHTSA told her when Honda announced the recall that her vehicle had not yet been repaired, and the recall remedy had not been performed on her Pilot.

NHTSA Investigates

On June 4, 2012, NHTSA granted Carvalho’s petition, opening Defect Petition 12-002. The first phase of the investigation, lasting four months, turned up more than 200 complaints of inappropriate braking of various lengths and strengths, but included instances of near stops in highway travel lanes. Honda, predictably maintained that it had no idea why its customers were lodging these complaints:

“To date, Honda has not evaluated a vehicle or components from a vehicle with a contention of unintended brake application causing the vehicle to come to a complete stop. Accordingly, we have not been able to reproduce this contention, and therefore have not been able to determine the root cause of such contentions.”

But Honda did let a few clues slip:

There were three reported instances of unintended braking in 2005 Odyssey vehicles in Japan and one complaint in the U.S.

 During recreation testing using a returned part from an owner’s 2005 Honda Pilot plagued by inadvertent braking, improper brake application occurred four times within approximately 0.5 miles.

In September 2005, Honda released a design change to the 2006 MY Pilot to prevent improper brake assist control. The new software compares brake pressure sensor values and looks for abnormal fluctuations that may cause brake assist to activate and prevents brake assist activation.

 Within the pressure sensor a missing weld between the circuit board and the pressure sensor results in an intermittent connection, it is possible that the weld process was bypassed during component production and was mishandled at the rejection step resulting in shipping of unsuitable components. The cause of non-communication appears to result from a capacitor that is out of spec due to a crevice between the cathode frame and the tantalum chip due to insufficient silver solder.

 

ODI added everything up and came to a different conclusion – Honda knew very well that it had a problem and had taken a series of steps to fix the control and fault detection algorithm in the VSA modulators.  On February 21, the agency bumped it up to an Engineering Analysis, and Honda saw the light. In March, it filed a Defect and Noncompliance report conceding that a damaged capacitor on the VSA electronic control unit circuit could cause inadvertent braking. In addition, some of the 2005 model year Pilots assembled at HMA with that defect could also have a loose electrical ground connector fastener, which could make the problem worse.

 Defect: Another Argument for a Functional Safety Requirement

The Honda inadvertent braking recall is yet another reason why NHTSA needs to get off its institutional hindquarters and promulgate a functional safety rule for safety-critical vehicle electronics. The frequency of electronically-based defects appears to be ticking up, and as systems migrate over from strictly mechanical to electro-mechanical to fully electronic, it’s only going to become more frequent.

In April, Kia and Hyundai announced that they were recalling 1.9 million vehicles from the 2006-2011 model years for a brake switch failure, in which an intermittent switch point contact could render the push-button start feature, the transmission, the brakes and the cruise control inoperable. In May, for example, Chrysler recalled Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Commanders because a transfer case actuator encoder electrical failure could shift the transmission into neutral causing a rollaway. In July, the automaker recalled some 2013 Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, and RAM C/V Tradesman vehicles because a software error could cause the wrong airbag to deploy in the event of a crash. This year, General Motors recalled some 2013 model year Cadillac ATS and XTS vehicles, and 2014 Chevrolet Impala vehicles because the a mid-manufactured capacitor could cause the brake lamps to intermittently flash when the driver is not braking, disengaging the cruise control and preventing the driver from accelerating, because the vehicle is braking.

NHTSA is allowing automakers to transfer safety-critical functions of steering, accelerating and braking with no regulatory guidance. It’s time to write a functional safety rule. Components deteriorate and fail. Drivers cannot be the only countermeasure for electronics that go ka-blooey on the highway.

Not to worry, Carvalho is on it. While she’s still in ongoing discussions with Honda, she’s moving up to the next level, lobbying her Senator, Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to propose legislation compelling NHTSA to promulgate a functional safety regulation.

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