Don’t Settle, NHTSA

Yesterday, the agency sent General Motors an extraordinary 27-page Special Order compelling the automaker to answer 107 questions about an ignition defect in the 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and six other models that claimed at least 13 lives and injured at least 31.

Retired NHTSA senior enforcement lawyer Alan Kam said that he’d never seen anything like it.

We are encouraged by NHTSA’s aggressive and swift action, and we are hoping and wishing and praying for actual enforcement follow-through that benefits and protects consumers, rather than merely burnishes the agency’s image.

We all know – including GM – that a big, fat fine is in their future for failing to launch a recall within five days of discovering a defect, as Marietta, Ga. attorney Lance Cooper found out. Cooper obtained internal documents during the discovery phase of a lawsuit on behalf of the family of the late Brooke Melton, showing that GM engineers discovered in 2004 that the ignition of the 2005 Cobalt could wander from the run to off or accessory position while the vehicle is underway. 

Time to Call BS: Why Safety Groups Sued DOT Over Backover Rule Delay

Last week, a consortium of safety groups and advocates decided it had had enough of the delay tactics in publishing a final rule establishing a rear visibility standard and sued the Department of Transportation.

“We are going through the motions of trying to put pressure on the system to cough out the rule,” says attorney Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We’ve got a new Secretary of Transportation, and to help him along we figured we’d get the court involved.”

The petitioners before the U.S. Court Of Appeals’ Second Circuit in New York includes three organizations – KidsAndCars, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Consumers Union – and two New York residents who have backed over their children – Sue Auriemma of Manhasset and pediatrician Greg Gulbransen of Syosset. The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was named for two-year old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed when his father accidentally backed over him in the family’s driveway. It required the agency to issue a Final Rule amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 111, the rearview mirror standard, to, for the first time, define what a driver sees in the rear when backing up to detect pedestrians immediately behind his or her vehicle. The law forced the agency to address a significant design flaw – especially in SUVs – of expanded blind zones caused by the vehicle’s height and bulk. Dramatic pictures from KidsAndCars shows as many as 62 children arrayed directly behind an SUV that would be unseen by driver checking the rearview mirrors.

[flashvideo file=video/KAC_62Children30.flv image="video/KAC_62Children30_Preview.jpg" /]

The original statutory deadline was February 28, 2011, but the Final Rule has been delayed four times, and now is on track to be completed four years after the deadline. In one of his last acts, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent another letter to Congress delaying the issuance of a Final Rule until January 2015. (The new Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Anthony Foxx, started in July.)

Crazy Ray’s Give Away!

T-Minus three and counting before the rollercoaster ride that is the tenure of Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood careens to a stop. But, not before he did one last handstand for the crowd.

With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Chrysler on a collision course over a recall to remedy the aft-of-the axle fuel tank design of the early model Jeep Grand Cherokees and some Jeep Liberty SUVs that is prone to explode into flames in a rear impact, LaHood, donned his super-hero tights and flew to what he imagined to be the rescue.

Now, most backroom deals attempt to stay on the QT. But, Ray LaHood, never one to miss an opportunity to pat himself on the back, could not be silent. He gave David Shepardson of The Detroit News the scoop: Six days before Chrysler would have to formally respond to NHTSA’s request that Chrysler recall 2.7 million 1994-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs, Ray got Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne on the blower and said something like, “Look here, old man, no one takes safety more seriously than Ray LaHood and we’ve got to figure this Jeep thing out!”

Chrysler had heretofore demonstrated a very public unwillingness to recall those Jeep models, based on a shaky statistical analysis that threw every model on the wall it could think of to make the pre-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee (before they moved the tank) look not-so-horrible. On June 9, LaHood drove from his home in Peoria, Ill; Marchionne flew in from Italy and David Strickland, ever playing Jimmy Olsen to LaHood’s Superman, flew from D.C. to Chicago. The trio converged at the Federal Aviation Administration building at O’Hare Airport for a “tough, hour-long ‘frank’ meeting,” according to Shepardson’s story.

As reported by Shepardson, Marchionne dispatched some engineers the next day to D.C. to come up with “the outlines” of a remedy with NHTSA. In public, the confrontation appeared to build, encouraged by business and auto journalists who seemed excited by the prospect of Chrysler sticking its finger in the government’s eye. Just as the showdown drew nigh, the automaker announced that it would implement a “voluntary campaign” to add trailer hitches to some older models.

Ray could not contain his enthusiasm for the remedy:

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

Everybody Loves Raymond

The Boeing Dreamliner is a dream – as long as your dream includes a three-year wait for your order due to production problems, or engine failures or electrical system headaches. All these and more have plagued the 787 jet airliner in the last several years. The latest bad news: today Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways grounded their 24-jet Dreamliner fleets at least until tomorrow, after a battery warning light and burning smell in the cockpit and cabin forced a landing and evacuation. This mishap follows a January 7 cabin fire aboard a Japan Airlines Dreamliner caused by an overheated battery, a cracked cockpit window, fuel leaks, an oil leak and brake issues.

The Federal Aviation Administration had announced that it had initiated a nose-to-tail review of the jet’s design, manufacture and assembly, which Boeing had pitched as a fuel-efficient aircraft constructed of lighter weight composite materials. No worries, though. According to our Chief Transportation Salesman Ray LaHood, it’s all good.

“I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservations of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight,” LaHood asserted at a press conference.

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.)

We Read the Report. Did Ray?

Last week, NHTSA pitched its two technical tomes on Toyota unintended acceleration at a pack of reporters, declared that the automaker’s electronics were fine, and ran away. Our esteemed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood then made the media rounds, grousing that the critics hadn’t read the report, which leads us to ask: Did Ray?

We’ve been reading it and re-reading it, and conferring with a wide range of technical experts – some of whom have extensive experience in engine management control design, validation and testing. And we gotta tell you, Ray, we aren’t ready to buy our kid a new Toyota.

Far from exonerating Toyota electronics, the reports by NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) confirm the paucity of the automaker’s safety diagnostics. The NESC team also identifies how the two signals in the accelerator pedal position sensor can be shorted in the real world – leading to an open throttle (aka, tin whiskers). Hell, NESC found the potential in three pedals – that’s a pretty significant percentage in a very small sample. Tin whiskers are such a serious issue that NASA has devoted considerable resources to studying them. They have wreaked electronic havoc on everything from medical devices to weapons systems and satellites. Yet, the NESC report treated the discovery of tin whiskers in a third of their pedal sample like a dead end, instead of a promising avenue of study.