Better Consumer Protection in China?

China may be better known for afflicting consumers with shoddy products than protecting them from shoddy products, but if you own a newish Jeep Wrangler, apparently you’re better off if your vehicle is registered in Beijing rather than Boston.

In November 2011, the Chinese government strongly suggested that Chrysler recall its 2008 – 2010 Jeep Wrangler models because the skid plate and exhaust configuration allowed debris to collect in the undercarriage of the vehicle while off- roading, allowing the catalytic converter to ignite the dried grass. The recommendation came after consumers filed three fire complaints in the month of October alone. Chrysler tried to argue that only the 2010 MY Wrangler possessed uniquely defective underbody conditions, but the Chinese government lit a fire under the automaker to recall the 2008 and 2009 model years as well. Owners of those Jeep Wranglers got the skid plate replaced by the new skid bar, which didn’t allow debris to accumulate.

So what happens if you are Rob Pyrock of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the owner of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon? You don’t know anything about the Chinese Wrangler recall, but two months later, your Wrangler vehicle catches fire after a trip across a meadow, according to some fine reporting by WCNC’s Bill McGinty.

Sudden Unintended Braking: The Mercedes Problem that Didn’t Go Away

German engineering ain’t what it used to be.

Melissa Marsala, a Mercedes owner from Cape Coral, Fla., was driving her 2001 ML430 at about 45 mph down a main thoroughfare, when her vehicle suddenly went into braking mode. The two vehicles behind her in the inner left lane slammed on their brakes to avoid a collision, and Marsala was able to ease the bucking vehicle onto the grassy median that divided the roadway.

“It terrified me,” Marsala recalled. “There was no reason for the brakes to engage. I was trying to come to a full stop but the car went boom-boom-boom-boom. It happened in an interval that was so quick. The car was skipping, smoke was coming off the wheel wells and you could smell the rubber burning. I veered it right into the median strip and it stopped itself.”

Those moments of sheer fright were courtesy of a malfunctioning yaw sensor – a problem primarily in the M-Class – well known to Mercedes, some M-class owners and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation. In 2007, NHTSA opened and quickly closed a Preliminary Evaluation into sudden unintended braking involving about 100,000 MY 2000-2001 M-class vehicles, without taking any action.

In May of 2007, Mercedes explained it all away to ODI at a presentation in which the automaker simulated electrical faults in the yaw rate sensor and showed how “the ESP [Electronic Stability Program] system is programmed to diagnose electrical faults and that brake applications resulting from yaw rate sensor electrical faults are very short in duration (0.3 seconds or less) and don’t affect vehicle control or stability.” NHTSA’s Vehicle Research and Test Center was unable to duplicate the problem in a vehicle that had experienced multiple events; and ODI’s attitude was: no documented crashes, low complaint rate, no problem.

It’s Tire Safety Week! Is There Anything to Celebrate?

In April, materials scientist John Baldwin bluntly schooled insiders at the annual Tire Industry Conference about things the rubber industry has known for decades from its own internal research. He pointed out that relying on tire tread depth to determine the viability of a tire is a bit of a crapshoot:

“In the tire industry, a lot of decisions are based on tread depth,” he said. “But what is the significance of tread depth? There is uneven wear on damn near every tire.”

He took note of the unsafe practice of rotating unused, but old spares onto vehicles:

“The average full-sized spare tire is nine years old,” he said. “You can tell your tire store to take that perfectly good spare tire and put it on your car. But if you’re in Yuma or Miami, do you really want that nine-year-old spare going on? “Meanwhile, the average mini-spare is 12 years old. That means you’re screwed.”

And he took exception to what he calls the Rubber Manufacturers Association’s (RMA) mischaracterization of his tire aging research for Ford Motor Company.

Ford Offers “False” Testimony; Alliance Swears to It

From the annals of chutzpah: On March 12, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers filed a friend of the court brief to head off a potentially disastrous breach in the auto industry’s carefully constructed dam around the causes of unintended acceleration (UA). To wit, there are no electronic causes of unintended acceleration. This phenomenon, as the industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have it, is solely caused by drivers hitting the wrong pedal and mechanical causes, such as pedal entrapment and bound Bowden cables. Electronic systems cannot have electronic malfunctions that can go undetected or cause UA, got that?

William T. Swigert, the Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, however, had no respect for industry/government mythology. He set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, after deciding that Ford’s victory in Stimpson v. Ford was won with “false and misleading” testimony and defrauded the federal government to boot, by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles. (See How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today)

NHTSA Proposes Rubber Stamp Brake Throttle Override Rule

For the second time in 40 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is attempting to upgrade the accelerator control standard by proposing that manufacturers be required to equip all vehicles with a brake override.  A brake override system cuts throttle voltage in electronic throttle control (ETC) vehicles when the brakes and throttle are in conflict. Variations of this type of fail-safe have been incorporated in a number of ETC equipped vehicles since the 1990s.

“We considered establishing a design requirement as the sole requirement for BTO, but the differences among BTO systems currently available from different vehicle manufacturers are significant enough that a design requirement by itself cannot effectively accommodate them all without being overly complex and/or design restrictive. By combining a relatively simple performance test with the basic equipment requirement described above, we can achieve a robust standard which is largely performance-based and minimally costly or burdensome.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is in direct reaction to the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) crisis, noting the August 2009 deaths of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in Lexus ES350 loaner that experienced a UA event at highway speed. But, the proposal appears to be more of a political response than a technological one. It ignores past recalls for UA events that are electronically caused; and it fails to base this upgrade on any statistical analysis. It merely codifies manufacturers’ current equipment without teasing out the differences between more effective and less effective brake override systems, such as the Toyota system, which doesn’t activate in some of the most frequently reported UA scenarios – when the driver’s foot is on the brake – or on no pedal. According to Toyota’s “Smart Stop Technology,” “the feature doesn’t engage if the brake pedal is depressed before the accelerator pedal. The driver must press the accelerator first and then depress the brake.”

Antony Anderson, a U.K.-based electrical engineering consultant who has studied unintended acceleration, says that the rule fundamentally misses the essential ingredient in any failsafe system – independence from the malfunctioning component. This is why many machines, from motorcycles to escalators, have separate kill switches that can independently remove power from the throttle, he says.

“For some reason, the automobile industry seems to think they don’t need to bother,” Anderson says. [The agency] “has a well-developed NHTSA-speak, where they are all the time trying to minimize the possibility of an electronic malfunction.”

“This just captures the state of the industry, not the state of the art,” says Neil Hanneman, an automotive engineer who have overseen automotive electronic designs and has consulted with Congress on Toyota unintended acceleration. “For it to really be a robust standard it would have to address things that have not been addressed yet – which will be with the electronics.”

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.

Technical Upstart Schools NHTSA on Toyota Electronics

Why can’t consumers get with the program?

Toyota – even with its technical difficulties, bad press and a tsunami that devastated Japan last year – is still a very wealthy corporation with a multi-billion-dollar bottom line. We shudder to contemplate how many millions the automaker spent on public relations, intimidation campaigns, advertisements, image consultants, outside counsel and scientists for hire. The money was laid on thickly enough to keep things cozy on almost all fronts.

And yet….it cannot stop the maddening trickle of unintended acceleration crashes into supermarkets, restaurants and other benighted retail establishments. And it cannot stop the drip, drip, drip of questions from consumers. We are still reading Toyota UA complaints with great interest, and recently we came upon a complaint from a 2004 Tacoma owner from Hopkinton, New Hampshire who witnessed a UA event in his driveway – much like two Office of Defects Investigation engineers did about a year ago in the presence of Prius owner Joseph McClelland (see Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records)

Like Mr. McClelland, an electrical engineer who happened to be the director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Electric Reliability, this gentleman is not a typical consumer. He is, by his own description, an engineer who wrote a book on troubleshooting servo systems. Like Southern Illinois University Automotive Electronics Professor David Gilbert, another curious Toyota owner with the technical skills to run some tests, he has noted the lack of fail safes and redundancies and the high risk to safety.

Here is his April 18 report to NHTSA:

Another Toyota SUA Fatality?

The Whittier Daily News reported yesterday on the death of 26-year-old Rosie Manzanares, a bicyclist who was struck and killed yesterday by a Toyota driver backing out of a parking space.

According to the California Highway Patrol of Santa Fe Springs, Angelica Cuevas, 78, was backing her 2012 Camry from a parking spot as Manzanares rode by:

“Halfway out of the parking stall, Mrs. Cuevas stopped her vehicle. As Ms. Manzanares was riding directly behind Mrs. Cuevas' vehicle, Mrs. Cuevas rapidly accelerated her vehicle for unknown reasons.”

Given Cuevas’ age, we know that NHTSA and Toyota would chuck her case into the driver error file without a backward glance. We’re not so sure. We don’t know all the facts in the Manzanares incident, but it appears to have the key ingredients of a Toyota Unintended Acceleration parking lot incident.

These scenarios were not the subject of NHTSA’s most exhaustive research effort ever undertaken anywhere, by anyone, about anything. But, they are common. Even though the NHTSA-NASA Super Team didn’t bother to study surges at low speed, the agency noted their frequency in Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems:

“Further review of the stationary and low speed incidents (combined) found that parking lot entry and exit accounted for the largest share of these incidents (40% of VOQs 64% of crashes. Many of the parking maneuver narratives reported incidents characterized by high engine power either after the driver applied the brake or immediately after shifting the transmission.”

In the case of older Toyotas with Potentiometer-type pedals one of the known electronic reasons was shorts caused by tin whiskers. The NASA scientists running tests on defective Camry pedals found that there is one scenario in which a resistive short in the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor could lead to a surge without setting a diagnostic trouble code:

NHTSA Issues Eighth Consumer Advisory about Dangers of 15-Passenger Vans

On March 1, the Epicenter of Worship Church held a prayer vigil for Omberi Erasto, the 18-year-old East Lansing High School student who died in a 15-passenger van rollover crash last month. Erasto was one of 17 occupants in a 2002 Chevrolet Express homeward bound on I-96 after a choir performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The left rear tire of the Express failed, leading to a loss-of-control crash that left several passengers severely injured, including Erasto’s younger sister, who lost her leg.

Two weeks later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, issued yet another warning about the proper use of a 15 passenger van, in advance of the “spring driving season.” The agency is, once again, urging “colleges, church groups, and other users of 15-passenger vans to take specific steps to keep drivers and passengers safe.”

This is the agency’s eighth consumer advisory about the dangers of 15-passenger vans since 2001. The number one tip? Never overload a 15-passenger van because they “are particularly sensitive to loading.”

Funny, though, the agency neglects to define “overload” for the consumers they presumably want to warn. Fifteen-passenger vans have the dubious distinction of being a vehicle that is inherently unsafe if used for its intended purpose. Back in 2001, the agency issued specific information related to overloading, and emphasized the deadly consequences of failing to heed this warning:

Burning Question: Why are Some Manufacturers Investigated for Door Fires, Others Not?

Karen Swicker’s used 2002 Subaru Outback was new to her – less than a year old, when the driver’s side door ignited as she drove look along a Newburyport, Massachusetts road on February 16. The first puff of smoke sent her to the side of the road. As she came to a stop, the wisps had turned to a cloud. When the Fire Department pulled the door off, it burst into flames, and fire fighters had to cut the electrical wires from the harness.

This might have made a memorable entry in Subaru’s new marketing campaign, First Car Story, in which a driver can used an automated computer program with music and graphics to wax poetic about the elderly El Dorado with the duct-taped bumper that ferried him and his friends to the malt shop.

As Alan Bethke, Subaru of America’s director of marketing communications said in a statement: “The First Car Story campaign provides a creative outlet for reliving those unique, funny, unforgettable car experiences anyone who had a first car can relate to.”

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