June 21, 2010
Once upon a time, there was a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard for accelerator controls. It was a very ancient standard, written in 1972, when vehicles were equipped with purely mechanical systems. FMVSS 124 Accelerator Control Systems specified the requirements for the return of a vehicle’s throttle to the idle position when the driver removed the actuating force from the accelerator control or in the event of a severance or disconnection in the accelerator control system. Its purpose was “to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from engine overspeed caused by malfunctions in the accelerator control system.”
Decades passed, and so did the mechanical systems, into automotive history. The car makers began to seek the wise counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: did FMVSS 124 apply to electronic systems? Yes it did, NHTSA said.
In 1995, after seven years of issuing interpretations relating electronic systems to the mechanically-based standard, NHTSA began the process of upgrading the standard to address the needs of the modern automobile. The agency asked many questions about electronic systems failsafes and redundancies, such as “Are there other predictable points of failure of an electronic control system?”
But the Great and Powerful Car Companies did not want a new regulation. They said: We do not need any new rules – we don’t even need the current rule. Nay, market forces and litigation pressure are sufficient to assure fail-safe performance without a federal motor vehicle safety standard.
Despite the resistance, NHTSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in July 2002, explicitly stating its applicability to new types of engines and throttle controls; and adding new test procedures to address different types of powertrain technology, including one to the measurement of engine speed under realistic powertrain load conditions on a chassis dynamometer. The agency considered this test ‘‘technology neutral.” The new standard would not expand in scope, nor become more stringent.
But the Great and Powerful Car Companies did not like this. They fought against the agency’s attempt to establish fail-safe criteria. Leading the charge were the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and . . . Toyota Motor Corporation. The proposed rule had too many problems they said, and the agency lost heart. In November 2004, NHTSA withdrew the rulemaking, saying it would do further research on issues relating to chassis dynamometer-based test procedures for accelerator controls.
More years went by, and people began to complain in great numbers that the accelerator controls in Toyota vehicles did not work right. And, lo! There were deaths and injuries “resulting from engine overspeed caused by malfunctions in the accelerator control system.” The lawsuits against Toyota began to pour into all the courts in the land. There were so many of them, that a judge had to combine them into one gigantic case, in which many lawyers would do battle. Many car buyers read the news about these problems with accelerator controls and decided that they really would rather have a Buick, or a Ford, or a Honda. Anything but a Toyota. And, the U.S. Congress took a sudden interest in the ancient accelerator regulation, and began to clamor for a law that would force NHTSA to update the standard.
And so, the wish uttered 15 years earlier by the Great and Powerful Car Companies came true. Toyota became the target of multi-district litigation, its customers fled and a new regulation was on the horizon.
Now, wasn’t that a nice story, boys and girls?