New Analysis Challenges Bold Tesla Claims

On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown, a Tesla enthusiast, died, when his 2015 Model S in Autopilot mode, collided with a tractor trailer crossing a highway near Williston, Florida. A month later, the agency opened an investigation to throw open the hood of Tesla’s technology and probe its Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) system design and performance, the human-machine interface issues, modifications Tesla had made to its Autopilot and AEB systems and Tesla crash data.

Six months later, the Office of Defects Investigation closed the Preliminary Evaluation saying they could find nothing wrong – in fact, the agency’s examination of the crash data showed that Tesla’s Autopilot system, beefed up with Autosteer, was a god-damned miracle! By the agency’s calculations, airbag deployments in Tesla vehicles with Autosteer dropped by 40 percent after the installation of the technology – either as original equipment or through an over-the-air software update.

But, a new analysis of the original data by Randy Whitfield, of Quality Control Systems (QCS) Corp., actually shows the opposite. For the subset of vehicles (those that had mileage before and after the installation of Autosteer) in which all of the relevant data are known – the exact mileage at the installation of the technology, Whitfield found that the airbag deployment crash rate increased by 59 percent after Autosteer technology was added. (NHTSA’s Implausible Safety Claim for Tesla’s Autosteer Driver Assistance System)

He concluded: “Our replication of NHTSA’s analysis of the underlying data shows that the Agency’s conclusion is not well-founded.”

Ahem. That understatement doesn’t begin to capture all of the ridiculous, but troubling elements of this story. Sean Kane, president and founder of Safety Research & Strategies, and a frequent collaborator with Whitfield, says the agency’s bad math coupled with its resistance to transparency bodes ill for public safety and push for unregulated autonomous vehicles.

“NHTSA has shown its unwillingness to regulate the safety of the electronics that control modern vehicles and to properly assess potential safety defects in increasingly complex vehicles. This once-storied public health agency, built on epidemiological principles, now resorts to hiding data and promoting the business interests of companies they were entrusted with regulating as it promotes autonomous vehicles and surrenders its oversight role in favor of industry ‘guidance.’” Kane says.

NHSTA Exponent-izes the Tesla Data

In the report NHTSA submitted along with the Closing Resume of its 2016 Tesla investigation, the agency claimed that Tesla’s addition of Autosteer had a significant and measurable effect on safety:  

ODI analyzed mileage and airbag deployment data supplied by Tesla for all MY 2014 through 2016 Model S and 2016 Model X vehicles equipped with the Autopilot Technology Package, either installed in the vehicle when sold or through an OTA update, to calculate crash rates by miles travelled prior to [fn. 21] and after Autopilot installation. [fn. 22] Figure 11 shows the rates calculated by ODI for airbag deployment crashes in the subject Tesla vehicles before and after Autosteer installation. The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.

That NHTSA decided to feature airbag deployments as a determinant of the efficacy of autonomous technology was odd, because in its Information Request to Tesla, the agency never asked Tesla for airbag deployment numbers. Nonetheless, for the ensuing year and a half, Tesla dined out on this claim, trotting out the 40 percent reduced crash rates whenever another one of its vehicles crashed. By May 2018, the agency was forced by the journalistic clamor for the basis of this startling statistic, to walk it back. But only Whitfield persisted and succeeded in obtaining the underlying data to reveal how statistically weak the figure was.

Crash rates are born of numerators and denominators. In this case, the numerator was the number of airbag deployments. The denominator was comprised of vehicle miles travelled – which represented the vehicle’s exposure to the risk of a crash, and therefore a scenario in which the airbag might deploy. In order to pin down the denominator, NHTSA needed to know the vehicle mileage at the time Autosteer was installed, but for most of the vehicles in the study, Tesla didn’t provide the exact data.

Whitfield found that “the actual mileage at the time the Autosteer software was installed appears to have been reported for fewer than half the vehicles NHTSA studied.” Of the 43,781 vehicles studied, only 5,714 vehicles – or 13 percent – had complete mileage data and driving experience before and after installing Autosteer.

For the data missing the exact Autosteer installation mileage number, “NHTSA treated the exposure mileage that could not be classified as either before or after the installation of Autosteer as if it were zero mileage,” Whitfield says. “This results in an undercount of the denominators. The problem is the under-count affected the “before” category much more than it did the “after” category.” 

The Nearly Two-Year Battle for the Data

It took Whitfield, plus a lawyer, and 641 days to get the data.

Whitfield was suspicious of NHTSA findings, and the lack of back-up data from “one of the most incessantly self-professed data-driven government agencies” and sought to replicate its analysis. On February 24, 2017, QCS filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for “all of the mileage and airbag deployment data supplied by Tesla analyzed by ODI to calculate the crash rates shown in Figure 11…” He also asked for any “statistical formulas, models, adjustments, sample weights, and/or any other data or methods relied upon to calculate the crash rates.”

At the end of March, the agency promised to respond by mid-April. Three months later, when no response seemed forthcoming, Whitfield filed a FOIA lawsuit for the data in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.  On July 21, 2017, NHTSA notified Whitfield that it had denied his request, based on two exemptions to the FOIA – Exemption 4, which shields information that could cause competitive harm, and Exemption 5 – which shields an agency’s “deliberative process” from public view. NHTSA tends to hand these out like after-dinner mints. In the past, the agency has misused Exemption 5 to deem any piece of information – a photograph, a number – as a critical part of its deliberative process, and deny a FOIA request. (DOT Settles Lawsuit over Toyota UA Documents, New Congressional Inquiry Raises More Questions)  

On September 30, 2018, U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich denied motions by both QCS and DOT for a summary judgement (a favorable ruling). However, in her 13-page ruling ordering the parties to prepare for further proceedings, Judge Friedrich made it abundantly clear that she found both Tesla’s claims of competitive harm and NHTSA claims of deliberative process to be less than persuasive.

On the matter of the competitive harm, Judge Friedrich scratched her head over Tesla Director of Field Performance Engineering, Matthew L. Schwall’s lengthy December 20, 2017 declaration describing the various ways the data could reveal “proprietary secrets.” She methodically eviscerated Schwall’s five arguments – a shorter version might be: You wrote many, many words. None support your position.

Then, she swept aside NHTSA’s arguments that Office of Defect Investigation’s Jeffrey Quandt used some super-secret deliberative methods that could not be exposed to the light of day:

It thus appears that Quandt performed a straightforward mathematical calculation involving categories of data clearly identified in Figure 11. Based on Figure 11 and his declaration, it appears that Quandt simply divided the total number of airbag activations by the total number of miles driven to determine the average crash rate (per million miles) for select Tesla vehicle models (both before and after Autosteer installation).

Following this judicial beat-down, NHTSA told Tesla that it was rescinding its grant of Confidential Treatment for the data QCS requested and turned it over in late November. (The data provided to QCS by NHTSA is available here.)

The Moral of the Story

Last May, an American Automobile Association (AAA) released the results of its latest survey tracking consumer trust in automotive autonomous technology, and found that it has “quickly eroded. Today, three-quarters (73 percent) of American drivers report they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up significantly from 63 percent in late 2017. Additionally, two-thirds (63 percent) of U.S. adults report they would actually feel less safe sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle while walking or riding a bicycle.”

And stories like this aren’t going to move the numbers upward.

NHTSA owes its public health mission and the driving public its due care and transparency in guiding the transition. Instead, the agency has let the industry auto-steer us towards their next big business model, while cheering from the sidelines.

We can only hope the burns sustained from the exploding 40-percent claim will discourage NHTSA in the future from throwing out statistical spitballs, providing automakers with marketing copy and trying to hide from independent investigators.


Preventing Heavy Truck Rear-Impact Crashes: We Have the Technology. Why Don’t We Use It?

On a hot Friday afternoon in June, truck driver Perry McCleod, at the wheel of a 2004 Peterbilt tractor-trailer pulling a 2016 Hyundai box trailer, crashed into the back of a Toyota Tundra, stopped at a work-zone on Interstate 94 in Cass County, Missouri. A forensic examination of the crash showed that McCleod was doing nearly 70 miles an hour seven seconds before the crash. The impact created a four-vehicle chain collision. A witness at the scene told investigators from the Missouri State Police “the truck driver had to be distracted. He was not slowing down at all. I don’t believe he locked up his brakes. He just smashed that car. It was unbelievable.” Another said, “I was southbound behind the tractor trailer in the right lane. We were traveling at highway speeds. He slammed on his brakes and I slammed on mine. He hit something and I saw a vehicle go flying in the air.”

Karl Blaser, 44, the driver of the Tundra, died at the scene from his injuries. Yesterday, the Blaser family filed a civil lawsuit in Missouri’s Circuit Court of Cass County against McCleod and Landstar, which leased his truck and operates a long-haul transportation company, alleging negligence.

In 2016, there were 475,000 police-reported crashes involving large trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) annual Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts. Many human factors contributed to the total, among them: a lack of rigorous truck driver training, and trucker’s low pay, long hours and high turnover rate. Distraction is another major factor. According to the FMCSA, from 2013-2015, 702 or about 6 percent of the total 11,570 drivers of large trucks and buses involved in fatal crashes, were distracted or impaired at the wheel. In most cases, the cause of the distraction was unknown. But for at least two decades, how to prevent them has been well known. Engineering strategies – including low-tech audible warnings and more complex crash avoidance systems – prevent such crashes. Nonetheless, they remain a mere option for fleets and independent operators, even as the sources for distraction multiply and employment conditions in the trucking industry set the conditions for tired, inexperienced and ill-trained drivers to make fatal errors. Both the federal government and industry have favorably assessed these countermeasures, but the former has done nothing to require them and the latter has not pushed for their implementation fleet-wide.  

“It’s long past time for the trucking industry to consistently use safety technologies,” says attorney Chad Lucas of the Kansas City firm of Kuhlman & Lucas, who represents the Blaser family. “Trucking companies and commercial carriers have known for decades the enormous value collision avoidance technologies add to their fleets by reducing the incidence and severity of rear impact crashes.” 

Forward Collision Warning Systems are Not New

Collision avoidance systems (CAS), can include a host of features, ranging from ABS brakes (standard), to electronic stability control (required for some heavy truck classes), and lane departure warning systems. Another system used by the commercial trucking industry is the Forward Collision Warning (FCW) system, which provides drivers with alerts in advance of a potential crash and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), which electronically applies the vehicle’s brakes without driver input in response to a potential crash. These technologies – which are also retrofit-able – can be used by themselves, but most vehicles equipped with automatic braking include a warning system. FCW systems rely on radar, LIDAR, and cameras to detect an imminent crash and alert the driver; AEB systems brake when an imminent collision is detected. Some systems also incorporate Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) to maintain a specified distance between it and the vehicle in front of it, so if the lead vehicle slows or comes to a stop, ACC systems will force the vehicle to follow suit, engaging the brakes, or otherwise decreasing engine RPMs by cutting off the fuel.

Government agencies have been taking note of the relationship between driver inattention and rear-impact crashes for more than two decades – around the same time that automotive technology companies began equipping their heavy trucks with them. In 1993, a NHTSA study on Intelligent Vehicle Highway System technology to prevent or reduce the severity of rear-end crashes found that driver inattention was the primary cause, estimated at 66.3 percent of events. In 1995, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Special Investigation likewise noted that the data showed that rear-end collisions were common and most often the result of driver inattentiveness or following too closely, and that they most often occur when the leading vehicle is stopped. The NTSB further noted that combination unit truck tractor vehicles were three times as likely to be involved in a rear-end collision during their operational lifetime than a passenger vehicle, and that when such a truck is the striking vehicle, the crash is “12 times more likely to result in a fatal injury than a rear-end accident that involves only passenger vehicles.”

One of the first companies to commercialize collision avoidance technology was Radar Control Systems, which became VORAD (vehicle on-board radar) Safety Systems in 1991. In 1992, then-Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner was sufficiently intrigued to participate in a public demonstration of a Lincoln Town Car, equipped with VORAD’s radar-based detection and an automatic braking application, stopping the car from hitting the back of a target vehicle. The press was good enough to entice Greyhound Lines Inc. to sign up with VORAD to retrofit its 2,400-bus fleet with VORAD's collision-warning radar. According to an Inc. Magazine article about VORAD, Greyhound predicted that the system would reduce accidents by 25 to 40 percent and pay for itself within a year. In 1994, Eaton Truck Systems joined forces with VORAD, purchasing a stake in the company. In 1998, VORAD added Adaptive Cruise Control to its radar system. In 2004, the partnership, now Eaton VORAD, entered into an agreement with component giant TRW to manufacture radar sensors.

Other manufacturers of forward collision warning systems are Bendix, with its Wingman collision mitigation system; Mobileye; and Meritor Wabco, which began marketing and selling its OnGuard collision mitigation systems – radar-based adaptive cruise control system with active braking – as early as 2007, according to their website. Meritor Wabco describes OnGuard as “a new technology designed to further improve commercial vehicle safety.” These systems are offered factory-installed or as aftermarket units for retrofits.

Trucking companies such as Landstar Systems’ subsidiary Landstar Poole, were initially eager first-adopters. In 1995, it purchased 400 Eaton VORAD Collision Warning Systems, and made another 100 units available for purchase by small fleet operators who contracted with Landstar.  A 1996 Federal Highway Administration report on the benefits of Intelligent Transportation System highlighted Landstar successes:

Landstar Systems is installing the Eaton-Vorad system on 40% of its owned fleet and giving the contract fleet incentive to equip. Positive evaluation of the device by experienced drivers in a pilot test and the potential to decrease self insurance losses lead to the decision to equip. While Landstar does not have reliable statistics, no equipped power units have been involved in a rear-end collision since the installation began in January of 1995.

In August 1998, Landstar Systems sold Poole to Schneider National and became an owner-operator business – meaning the fleet was owned by individual truckers who leased their vehicles back to Landstar, which handled the hauling operation. That year, Landstar was subsidizing the purchase of collision warning technology for their owner-operators. If the newly arranged company continued to help equip the fleet with FCW systems, it stopped bragging about it. 

“Landstar was once a leader in ensuring that its fleet was equipped with life-saving collision avoidance technology. What happened?” Lucas asked. “It’s inexcusable that it’s done nothing over the last 20 years to require the operators in its fleet to implement this safety technology.”

Other companies, such as UPS, have made collision warning systems standard in their heavy truck fleet.

Where’s the Research?

There isn’t a plethora of published quantitative efficacy data, but we know this: suppliers offer them, so there is a market, and truck chassis manufacturers install them as an OEM feature, and trucking companies buy them as after-market modifications, so there is some indication of a need and an acknowledgement that they prevent crashes. The federal government – particularly NHTSA – has been issuing reports on heavy truck braking performance, forward collision warning systems, and electronic stability control (ESC) since 2004. In 2015-2016, the agency published test track research reports in support of objective test procedures to evaluate the safety applications of V2V-equipped commercial vehicles.

In 2015, the NTSB published “The Use of Forward Collision Avoidance Systems to Prevent and Mitigate Rear-End Crashes,” which examined the board’s investigations of nine rear-end heavy truck crashes within the previous three years that resulted in 28 fatalities and 90 injured people. The report also noted that in 2012, rear-end crashes resulted in 1,705 fatalities and represented almost half of all two-vehicle crashes. The NTSB’s special investigation reached 10 conclusions, among them: the slow development of performance standards and the lack of regulatory action have delayed deployment of collision avoidance technologies; and when paired with active braking and ESC, collision warning systems could significantly reduce the frequency and severity of rear-end crashes. The NTSB criticized NHTSA for failing to include high-speed crashes in existing testing scenarios and protocols in the assessment of forward collision avoidance systems in passenger vehicles.  The board recommended that the agency develop performance standards and protocols to assess forward collision avoidance systems in commercial vehicles, and expand the New Car Assessment Program 5-star rating system to include the performance of such systems.

In June 2016, NHTSA published “Field Study of Heavy-Vehicle Crash Avoidance Systems,” which sampled 6,000 Crash Avoidance System activations from over 3 million miles and 110,000 hours of naturalistic data in order to evaluate their reliability. The systems studied included automatic emergency braking, impact, stationary object and following distance alerts, and lane departure warnings. None of systems that were activated were associated with collisions, nor did companies report any rear-end collisions involving the vehicles in the study. The percentage of false AEB activation was generally low and of short duration. The study concluded that “though the systems as a whole appeared to have a safety benefit, false activations were also observed. False AEB activations were much shorter, on average, as compared to other AEB activations, but could still frustrate or annoy drivers. This balance between informing and annoying drivers must be considered when designing the sensitivity of CAS technology.” The study did not observe that these technologies led to any changes in the driving behavior. The agency recommended further study.  

Despite these reports and the promises of efficacy research, the federal government does not require truck manufacturers to install Forward Collision Warning systems, even as the European Union has moved to require AEB on heavy trucks.

In June 2015, the agency mandated ESC for new Class 7 and 8 tractors by 2017, estimating that it would save 49 lives, prevent 1,759 crashes, and create $300 million in economic benefits annually. However, it did not require that the ESC be paired with other collision avoidance systems for maximum benefit.

In October 2015, NHTSA granted a petition for rulemaking filed that February by the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Road Safe America to establish a safety standard to require automatic forward collision avoidance and mitigation systems on certain heavy vehicles. In the Federal Register Notice, the agency noted its own research in this area and reported that industry was on the cusp making the next generation of automatic braking systems commercially available.  These new systems would “have improved performance that enables the vehicle to warn the driver and automatically brake in response to stationary lead vehicles. In addition to the increased performance from the next generation systems, industry is also expected to begin production of automatic emergency braking systems on air-braked single unit trucks with a GVWR of more than 26,000 pounds in the near future,” the notice said.

The public docket has but one letter of support from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and no other comments, and in the three years hence, the rulemaking does not appear to have advanced at all.

The FMCSA has published new rules that restrict texting and cell phones by truck and bus drivers while driving, but that has not deterred inattentive truck drivers who face serious prison time in cases where distraction results in a fatal crash. In the last six months, there have been at least three such sentencings. 

In December, semi-driver Nathan Frazier was sentenced to 11 years in prison for a 2015 crash that killed a teenager in Travis County, Texas. Frazier was looking at his GPS when he ran a red light and slammed into a Nissan Altima.

In July, a New York State Supreme Court judge sentenced 28-year-old truck driver Kristofer Gregorek to up to four and a half years for a crash that killed a University of Buffalo nursing professor. Gregorek was shopping online and filling out a customer satisfaction survey on his cell phone when he rear-ended Ellen Volpe at 70 mph.

In June, Jasvir Bariana Singh, a truck driver from  Indianapolis drew a four-year sentence for a multi-car crash on I-84 in Connecticut that killed a 19-year-old passenger in a vehicle that was impacted in the chain collision. Singh, on his way from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts with a load of candy, was also on his cell phone when he crashed into a traffic backup.

A year ago, the magazine Fleet Owner published a story on the desirability of mandating forward collision warning systems, and opened with this question: Should we or shouldn’t we? A better question is: why the hell not?

NHTSA Gets Real on Tire Fatalities

Safety Fact: 733 is the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2016 in which a contributing factor was tire malfunction.

Safety Fiction: On average, 200 people die each year in tire-related crashes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration happens to be the purveyors of both tidbits, and the discrepancy is not just a matter of facts, it’s a matter of rulemaking and a matter of mixed messaging.

For years, the agency clung to the lower figure, based on a suspect methodology, and used this figure to forego a rulemaking on tire age and to educate the public about tire safety. In December 2014, Randy Whitfield, of Quality Control Systems Corp presented a statistical analysis of tire crash data, challenging this particular agency statistic  at the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) two-day Tire Safety Symposium in Washington, DC. The symposium gathered stakeholders to share information on tire age, the recall system, tire construction, technology and tire-related crash data with the NTSB. Co-authored by Alice Whitfield, the study criticizing NHTSA's tire-related fatality counts was commissioned by The Safety Institute.

And now, nearly four years later, NHTSA has apparently decided to revise its estimate of tire-involved crash fatalities to something more reality-like, and to publish it in at least one place on its website.

“Safety advocates and proponents of the scientific method who have been asking for accurate, tire-related crash statistics are going to have to come to terms with getting 'yes' for an answer,” says Randy Whitfield. “Why is this important? Now that we know these crashes aren’t going away, now that we know the tire aging problem may not have been resolved by existing regulations, what are we going to do about it? Why can’t we put an easy-to-find and easy-to-read date of manufacture on a tire's sidewall?  Why is that too hard?”  

There are several possible sources of tire-related crash information, including state accident reports, Early Warning Reports, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study, and the National Automotive Sampling System/Crashworthiness Data System (NASS/CDS).

In 2014, NHTSA relied upon NASS/CDS data to show near-miraculous results of an upgrade of FMVSS 139. In a report released in May of that year, the agency said that its most recent analysis of tire-related crash data from 2007 through 2010 showed “a 35 percent reduction in tire crashes (17,019 to 11,047), a 50 percent reduction in fatalities (386 to 195) and a 42 percent reduction in injuries (11,005 to 6,361) when compared with annual averages from 1995 through 2006. The overall fatalities decreased by 20 percent between 2007 and 2010 (dropping from 41,059 to 32,885 fatalities), and overall police reported crashes decreased by 10 percent between 2007 and 2010 (dropping from 6,024,000 to 5,419,000).”

The agency attributed these decreases to requirements for tire pressure monitoring systems in new vehicles, along with “a more stringent FMVSS No. 139” that helped “create better-quality and safer tires.”  It concluded: “At this time, the agency does not believe it is necessary for motor vehicle safety to add a tire aging requirement to its light vehicle tire standard.”

Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane, also the founder of The Safety Institute, said “I have no doubt that FMVSS 139 – which was the first real upgrade to the tire standards since its original promulgation decades earlier – improved tire robustness. But, tires are not impervious to age degradation and absent easily identified dates of manufacture and clear and accessible guidelines on service life, tire age-related failures will continue to cause death and injury particularly because old tires can look just like a new tires – it’s an invisible hazard.” 

In his presentation before the NTSB, Whitfield demonstrated that NASS/CDS was a weak foundation on which to base any claims of tire-related crash trends. NASS/CDS is a probability sample of police reported tow-away crashes involving passenger cars, light trucks, and vans. Whitfield argued that the relatively small sample produced annual estimates that were based on very few actual crashes, resulting in unreliable estimates and trends that were more likely due to statistical noise rather than to true yearly difference. The NTSB also pointed out that the sample was heavily skewed geographically – the vast majority of the fatal tire-related crashes in NASS/CDS during the period 1995‒2012 were located in Arizona (41 of 64 fatal crashes). 

In contrast, Whitfield said that FARS, as an actual census of all fatal crashes on public roads in the US which includes data about tire-related crash factors, provided a much more realistic view of tire crash trends.

The probability estimates that NASS/CDS produced didn’t come close to matching the FARS count, Whitfield argued. Nor did it reflect a basic tenant of the tire failures – that they are related to heat and climactic conditions and increase along with temperatures. NASS/CDS estimates did not show a seasonal pattern.   

The NTSB’s October 2015 report agreed that a comparison of NASS/CDS to FARS data showed “the NASS/CDS data appear to underestimate the number of tire-related crashes, injuries, and fatalities. Additionally, for this particular factor, NASS/CDS did not provide a representative distribution of tire-related crashes across the United States.” The Board recommended that NHTSA go back and determine the actual level of crash risk associated with tire aging since the new FMVSS 138 and 139 came into effect; and “if it appears that the aging-related risk should be mitigated, develop and implement a plan to promote the tire-aging test protocol to reduce the risk. (H-15-33).” 

In 2016, then-Administrator Mark Rosekind made a head-scratching reply. He told the NTSB that NHTSA had already done the analysis in 2014, and suggested that since the new requirements of FMVSS 138 and 139 came into effect in September 2007, and since manufacturers recommend that vehicle owners replace tires after 10 years, there wasn’t “a significant amount of crash data currently available with which to analyze FMVSS No. 139 compliant tires that have aged significantly past a manufacturer's suggested lifespan.” 

So in 2016, NHTSA didn’t have enough data to determine if FMVSS 139 is effective, but two years earlier it had enough to show amazing results and to decide there was no need for a rulemaking. Okay, Mark.

The Safety Institute, which originally sponsored Whitfield’s statistical analysis of tire-related crash trends, has sent a letter to Acting NHTSA Administrator Deputy Administrator Heidi King to request that NHTSA fix that annual tire-related crash fatalities figures in its other educational materials to match the actual figures. (Read The Safety Institute's letter here.)

That would not be welcomed by the Tire Industry Association. In April 2014, its president Roy Littlefield sent a snippy letter to NHTSA declining to promote NHTSA’s In the Garage Infographic and educational video. (Read the Tire Industry Association's letter here.) While the TIA approved of NHTSA refraining from making any specific tire age recommendations, opting instead to urge consumers to have annual tire inspections,  it took extreme umbrage at NHTSA downgrading its annual estimate of how many people die in tire-related crashes each year from 400 to 200: 

“It is one thing to say that '400 people die every year as a result of tire failure due to improper inflation' and something completely different to just say any number of people die as the result of tire failures. The message as it stands tells consumers that tires are dangerous products because they kill hundreds of people each year.  The actual number is inconsequential because it does not tell the whole story unless it is tied directly to the lack of maintenance. Nothing has changed since September of last year because lowering the number to 200 doesn’t make it any less misleading.  Two hundred people die every year in tire-related crashes as a result of what?” he wrote. 

So how many people die each year in tire-related crashes? 200? 400? 700? It’s hard to get a grip on reality when your agendas inform your figures, rather than the other way around.

FCA Launches AutoPark “Customer Satisfaction Notification” Campaigns, Why no Recall?

About three weeks ago, FCA sent out a Customer Satisfaction Notification, alerting dealers “to enable” the AutoPark feature on 192,400 Model Year 2014-2016 Dodge Durango with rotary-style shifters. This follows a May campaign to “enable” the feature on in 281,790 RAM 1500 Pickup, Dodge Durango, and Chrysler 300 vehicles – all from the 2017 model year – and also with rotary-style shifters. According to FCA’s dealer bulletin, the company planned to notify vehicle owners of the “service requirement” via mail and dealers are instructed to that all involved vehicles can be identified in the company Global Recall System.

FCA’s non-recall, required service campaigns, which are being quietly rolled out, are not garnering headlines like the recalls FCA launched in 2016 to correct the same type of issue in Jeeps and other FCA models with another type of electronic shifter known as the Monostable. It is also the latest instance of back-peddling for FCA, which tried to popularize e-shift controls previously found in high-end luxury vehicles and ended up in the middle of NHTSA investigations, lawsuits and a wave of derision. (see Fiat Chrysler’s Transmission Woes Continue)

FCA describes AutoPark “as an enhanced securement strategy which places the vehicle in “PARK” if the driver attempts to exit the vehicle before placing the rotary gear shift selector in the “PARK” position.”  FCA’s first foray into AutoPark started in 2013 model year Dodge Ram trucks – but only those with the Engine Start/Stop (ESS) technology – a limited-population vehicle. ESS technology automatically shuts off the engine when a driver stops for a traffic light, and then restarts the engine when it’s time to resume driving. 

In the last two years, however, FCA has been implementing AutoPark widely as a countermeasure for vehicles with e-shifters that the automaker introduced in 2013 (Monostable and rotary dial designs). (see The Persistence of Rollaway)

The Monostable is a T-style shifter, which requires the driver to depress a button on the shift lever and move it to the gear position. The lever then springs back to a centered/neutral position. The gear position is displayed on the lever and on the dashboard. The rotary dial e-shifter is located on the instrument panel, with the PRNDL displayed both above the control and in the Electronic Vehicle Information Center. Drivers must press the brake pedal to shift out of PARK or to shift from NEUTRAL into DRIVE or REVERSE.

Back in 2013, FCA thought it scored a design coup with the introduction of its new shifters. In press materials, FCA was sure that “Owners will appreciate an innovative rotary e-shift dial for trucks equipped with the new TorqueFlite 8-speed transmission that replaces both column and floor shifters. The exclusive rotary e-shift dial enables intuitive operation with a direct and confident feel, even with gloves on. The convenient, dash-mounted, easy-to-understand and operate system provides total control of the sophisticated eight-speed transmission and is Ram Truck’s innovative approach to electronic shifters, already used in Class 6-8 trucks.”

It turned out that FCA vehicle owners were not as appreciative as the automaker predicted. The “exclusive rotary e-shift” was neither intuitive nor easy-to-understand. Drivers complained that shifting the dial didn’t provide adequate feedback whether they were in the right gear, leading them to mistakenly exit the vehicle without it being locked in Park. The rotary dial shifter’s poor placement also resulted in drivers mistakenly turning the nearby radio volume dial. The FCA rotary e-shifter has been implicated in rollaway crashes, injuries, and at least one death.

Ditto for the Monostable shifter, which was criticized for giving drivers poor visual and tactile cues, also leading to driver confusion about the gear state. Vehicles with that shifter was linked to at least 266 crashes, 308 reports of property damage and 68 injuries, and at least one death

In August 2015, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened a Preliminary Evaluation into the Monostable shifter design in 856,284 late model Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 vehicles, after more than 300 consumers complained to FCA and the agency about rollaways. Like the owners of rotary dial shifter vehicles, complaints suggested that drivers had misperceived the gear state. Some believed they had pushed the gear shift all the way forward to the Park position, but actually stopped at the Reverse position next to it.  

In April 2016, FCA recalled 811,586 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans from the 2012-14 model years, and MY 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees. The fix was a software re-flash to implement the AutoPark feature.  

In December 2016, NHTSA opened a Preliminary Evaluation investigation into 2013-2016 Dodge Ram 1500 and 2014-2016 Dodge Durangos with the rotary shifter. The investigation’s Opening Resume cited 43 rollaway complaints, with 25 crashes and nine injuries. The agency has publicly filed no other documents in the investigation in more than 18 months. It remains open.

In both cases, an unusual gear-shift interfaces misled drivers about the state of the transmission, resulting in rollaway crashes, with pretty serious consequences. So the Monostable-rollaway shifter problems get a recall, while the rotary-dial e-shifter problems get handled with a series of quiet customer satisfaction campaigns.

NHTSA, you cool with that?


More FCA Weirdness

The language FCA is using in notifying dealers about its rotary dial e-shifter vehicles is also strange. Both the May and July campaigns say that the AutoPark feature “may not be enabled” in certain vehicles within discrete manufacturing date ranges. This suggests that the feature was already in the vehicle, but just wasn’t turned on.

In the case of the 2017 Dodge Ram, Dodge Durango and Chrysler 300, AutoPark was introduced as a running change mid-year. (In its April 2017 cars buying guide issue, Consumer Reports pointedly removed the Chrysler 300’s “Recommended” status, because it lacked AutoPark – a safety feature the organization rightly noted should be in modern vehicles with e-shifters. FCA earned it back in July 2017, after installing it.) So it’s possible that it was not enabled in some production models before they hit the showroom.

But it is far more likely that FCA is installing AutoPark in those vehicles for the first time. According to Consumer Reports, the feature was added to those three 2017 models on April 1, 2017. The customer satisfaction notice notes that the build dates for the vehicles with an AutoPark feature that “may not be enabled,” are April 12, 2016 through April 01, 2017.

Likewise, there is no evidence that AutoPark was ever implemented in a 2014-2106 Dodge Durango. This feature is not mentioned in the service literature nor owner’s manuals. We think it’s safe to say that FCA can drop the word “may.”

And, we suppose that one could use the term “enabled” to mean adding a software algorithm based on data points already being monitored in the vehicle. But we are still trying to figure out why one bad shifter gets the countermeasure in a recall and another gets the same fix for the same kind of safety defect in a second-tier effort.  

The Persistence of Rollaway

In the last three months, two auto manufacturers recalled more than a million vehicles with defects that can cause a failure to lock the vehicle in Park, allowing it to roll away.

Last week, Ford recalled more than 504,000 2013-2014 Escape and 2014-2016 Fusion vehicles over deteriorated bushings that could detach from the transmission shifter cable, allowing the driver to move the shift lever to Park and remove the key, when the transmission is not actually in the Park position. On June 18, Fiat Chrysler recalled 240,242 Chrysler Pacifica minivans because the plastic plug over its Manual Park Release – which allows the driver to override the gear selection – could be pried off without the use of a tool, as required by regulation. A driver could too easily access the release and set the SUV to roll. In April, Ford also issued two safety recalls for nearly 350,000 new F-150 pickup trucks and Expedition SUVs because a roll pin attaching the park pawl rod guide cup to the transmission case was not installed in some of the vehicles, causing the transmission to eventually lose the Park function even when the shifter and instrument panel display indicate that the vehicle was in Park.

Recalls and investigations going back to the 1970s show that rollaway is a persistent and diverse problem. Broken parts, like pawls and rods, still dominate as root causes. But technological changes, such as keyless ignitions and new electronic transmission gear shift designs (e-shifters) have expanded the map. For example, FCA’s notorious Monostable e-shifter, linked to at least 266 crashes, 308 reports of property damage and 68 injuries, was criticized for confusing drivers about the gear state. The design proved so troublesome, FCA abandoned it in the Dodge Charger and Chrysler vehicles after the 2015 model year and in the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the 2016 model year.

In the last decade, NHTSA opened 18 investigations and automakers have launched 93 recalls related to vehicle rollaway. While the causes vary, today’s e-shifters and Electric Parking Brakes (EPBs) give automakers options to prevent it. EPBs have been available for a decade, and can prevent rollaways caused by mechanical failures and driver error. Vehicles with e-shifters can be designed to include automatic Park engagement when the driver doesn’t shift the vehicle into Park. While these features have been available and in use for many years, they still aren’t widespread enough in the U.S. fleet.

New Ways to Rollaway: Novel Shifters

One of the new root causes of rollaway in the modern automobile are new shifter designs that confuse the driver about the state of the transmission. Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA) has amply demonstrated the bad consequences of poor transmission shifter design with the introduction of the Monostable and dash-mounted rotary dial shifters.

With the former, the driver changing gears must depress a button on the shift lever and move it to the gear position, then the lever springs back to a centered/neutral position. The gear is displayed on the lever and on the dashboard. In an investigation, NHTSA found that the Monostable shifter was “not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”

The rotary dial design suffered from poor placement on the dash. Some drivers complained that the interface was “awkward” and it isn’t always clear if the vehicle was actually in Park.  

Chrysler began installing it on the Dodge Ram in 2013, and added it to other models, such as the Chrysler 200 and Chrysler 300. The rotary shifter is located on the instrument panel with the PRNDL displayed both above the shifter control and in the Electronic Vehicle Information Center. Drivers must press the brake pedal to shift out of Park or to shift from Neutral into Drive or Reverse.

The rotary dial shifter’s placement has drivers confusing the knob with another instrument panel control – the radio volume knob. Last month, some sharp-eyed Reddit users and auto website Jalopnik had some fun with a Chrysler Pacifica commercial that showed the driver mistakenly turn the rotary shifter, when she means to turn down the radio volume. (Chrysler Pacifica Commercial Appears to Show Actor Using Transmission Shift Knob to Adjust Volume

Actress Kathryn Hahn plays a mom rocking out to Fergie, as she waits in the school pick-up line for her children. About 25 seconds into the clip, as her children open the car door, Hahn hurriedly reaches to turn down the music – only she turns the rotary shifter – not the radio volume.  

Others complained that the rotary dial itself was confusing, leading them to mistakenly leave the vehicle in reverse, when the transmission was actually in Drive. According to one 2014 Ram 1500 owner in Ivyland, Pennsylvania:

I am sending this complaint regarding the gear selector knob that I believe poses a safety concern due to the 5 or 6 times that I have exited my vehicle while it was running and still in gear. On a few occasions I thought that I turned the gear selector knob to park when I actually turned it to reverse. I opened the door and began to exit my truck when it began to roll backwards. I have a 2010 ram with a normal shift selector lever and never had this issue. I thought that it might take a little time to get used to the knob style, but after 20 months, I am still having issues. I have spoken to others with this style knob and they have experienced the same issue. Each time this occurred was in my driveway either getting the mail or to run into the garage to get something.

Regardless of the way the driver executes a shift, the Monostable and rotary dial don’t physically move the gearshift into a detent.  They send a gear request from the driver via the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus to the Transmission Control Module which then makes the requested shift. In the last three years, these FCA e-shift controlled transmissions have been the subject of recalls, investigations and technical service bulletins. The complaints indicate the possibility of both electronic and mechanical defects.

NHTSA has opened investigations on both of these e-shifters. (See Chrysler’s Shifty Shifter and the Wacky World of Defects and Fiat Chrysler’s Transmission Woes Continue)

New Ways to Roll Away: Keyless Ignitions

Keyless ignition vehicles have also increased the opportunities for rollaway by initiating human errors. In these systems, the “key” is the invisible electronic code which is delivered to the vehicle via the plastic fob. Once the code, via a radio signal, enters the ignition, the fob’s engine activating job is done. You can still use the fob to lock and unlock the doors and trunk, or remotely start the vehicle, but the fob does nothing to turn the car off. The driver must press the Start/Stop button, physically put the transmission in Park and open the driver’s door.

Thus, you can kill the engine, forget to put the transmission in Park, and walk away with fob.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 Anti-Theft and Rollaway requires a vehicle to be locked in Park or automatically lock into the Park position as a condition of removing the key. But in 2006, as NHTSA amended the standard to address electronic ignition systems, it helped manufacturers avoid actually implementing transmission designs that automatically perform the function by giving them a crib sheet. In the Final Rule, the agency noted:  “Systems using an electronic code instead of conventional key would satisfy the rollaway prevention provisions if the code remained in the vehicle until the transmission gear is locked in the “Park” position.”

And manufacturers did just that – concocting complicated strategies to keep the vehicle in compliance while keeping the driver utterly clueless about the state of the vehicle and ignoring the actual intent of FMVSS 114. Many, many keyless systems address the scenario in which the driver remembers to turn the engine off, but forgets to shift into Park, by reverting the vehicle’s power state to Accessory Mode. That means that some of the vehicle’s electrical functions, such as the radio or headlights still work, and more to the point, the “key” is still in the ignition, while the fob may be tucked into a purse with or a pocket on the driver, miles away.

Most automakers bury this information somewhere in the 500-plus pages of the owner’s manual, so the driver is effectively ignorant of the status of the “key.” Regulations require automaker to warn the driver via an audible or visual warning that the key is still in the vehicle. Most also warn the driver that the transmission is not in Park – because that is a condition of removing the “key” from the vehicle’s ignition module. But many vehicle warnings are poorly executed – visual telltales that will be missed because the driver is not looking at the dash while exiting, or chimes that sound exactly like other vehicle warnings. 

To avoid angering customers who might return to a car with a dead battery, automakers designed systems that automatically turn the power off if the engine is off, but the vehicle ignition is in accessory mode for a pre-set number of minutes. However, in many vehicles this scenario will leave the transmission in whatever gear the driver left it in, free to roll.

In 2011, NHTSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, in attempt to clean up the mess they made in 2006. The NPRM recognized that the current keyless ignition systems had led to driver confusion, resulting in vehicles left running and/or out of the “Park” position. It also acknowledged that under the current designs, drivers can and do exit the vehicle without the transmission locked in Park, and sometimes without actually turning off the engine. The NPRM noted that the lack of standardization in combination with the lack of visual and tactile cues about the status of the vehicle engine has set the stage for the real world incidents.

The proposal adds a requirement for an internal and external alert that the driver and bystanders can hear when the vehicle is not in “Park”’ and the driver exits the vehicle – unless the transmission becomes locked in “Park”’ as a direct result of key removal upon door opening, or upon removal of the key code carrying device from the vehicle. (See Keyed Up With Anticipation: Smart Key Hazards Still Unresolved.) 

The NPRM, which was criticized by industry and advocates alike for its non-scientific approach, has not advanced in nearly seven years. But recently, four Democratic U.S. Senators: Bob Casey (D-PA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) wrote to NHTSA calling the delay unacceptable and urging the agency to finalize the rulemaking. The senators focused their attention on the CO deaths and injuries associated with keyless vehicles: 

“NHTSA’s lack of action has allowed other automakers to state publicly that their keyless ignition systems meet or exceed all relevant federal safety standards, despite the known and unaddressed dangers. This difference in response across the auto industry highlights the importance and necessity for a federal standard to be established and enforced without further delay,” they wrote.

Broken Parts

The majority of vehicle rollaways are caused by a wide range of mechanical, software and electronic failures. Out of a total of about 160 rollaway recalls since the 1970s, the vast majority are related to material or manufacturing deficiencies. Numerous vehicle components, such as the brake-to-shift-interlock failures, and drive shaft and axle can breakages, have led to a rollaway. In addition, vehicle software and electrical circuits can introduce problems that lead to the same condition. Consider these four recalls from the past few years:

  • In December 2015 Ford recalled 1,170 Transit vehicles from the 2015 model year equipped with dual rear wheels were mis-manufactured. An analysis of fractured drive shafts obtained from some of these vehicles found indication of unacceptable material grain flow during the forging process that could lead to axle fracture. A fractured axle could result in a loss of motive power or unintended vehicle movement when the transmission shift lever is placed in the Park position without the parking brake applied.
  • In May 2017, Volkswagen recalled five Audi Q5 vehicles with a gearbox manufacturing defect. Volkswagen stated that when the shift selector is moved to the Park position the gearbox may not engage the parking pawl, leading to a false park and potential for a rollaway.
  • In July 2017 FCA recalled 7,802 2017 Dodge Challengers for a software flaw that could inhibit the transmission from maintaining mechanical Park when the shift lever is moved to the Park position. FCA described the problem as Transmission Control Module software that “introduced longer clutch pressure vent gradients to improve shift quality. A longer clutch pressure vent rate increases the rate at which these vehicles may set a P1DDD fault. Setting a P1DDD fault will result in the vehicle automatically shifting into a 6th-gear limp mode instead of PARK.Vehicles experience P1DDD when venting the clutch pressure takes longer than 1.25 sec and too many clutches are still engaged.”“When a P1DDD fault is set the shifter will show “D”, the instrument cluster will show “D”, the instrument cluster will show a warning message “Service TransPress Brake When Stopped Key Off Engine to Engage Park”, and a repeating audible chime will sound. If the door is opened a “Vehicle Not In Park” message will also be displayed, the EVIC will alternate between the two messages and continue to chime.”
  • In November 2017 Toyota recalled 2018 model year C-HR vehicles because an oxide film could form on the electric parking brake (EPB) motor, as an open circuit, when the EPB has not been operated for a while. ECU identification of the open circuit would result in illumination of warning lights and a message displayed which states: “EPB Malfunction. Visit Your Dealer.” The condition could cause the parking brake to fail to release and in some cases, it can prevent the parking brake from being applied.

Rollaway Countermeasures for the Modern Age

Keyless ignition vehicles will only become more ubiquitous. Who knows what thrilling new transmission shifter will start a whole new round of automotive mayhem?

In the meantime, the industry has had two countermeasures at its disposal to keep a vehicle in place: the electric parking brake in tandem with auto-hold features. The electric parking brake has been around since at least 2001. According to a 2015 press release from supplier TRW, FCA was among the automakers who have implemented this feature: “ZF TRW was first-to-market with its EPB system in 2001, which pioneered with Lancia, Audi and VW and has since launched on Renault, Nissan and Daimler platforms, and more recently on the BMW X4 and BMW i8, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Ford F150, Honda Accord, Nissan Qashqai, Range Rover Evoque and more.”

EPBs replace manual parking brakes to hold the vehicle stationary on hills and flat roads.

They have been touted as the more economical choice, both in terms of interior space and per-unit cost. The manual parking brake lever or foot pedal was replaced by a small switch, and there were fewer mechanical parts to wear out:

“With EPB, the driver activates the holding mechanism with a button and the brake pads are then electrically applied onto the rear brakes. This is accomplished by an Electronic Control Unit (ECU) and an actuator mechanism. There are two mechanisms currently used in vehicle production, cable puller systems and caliper integrated systems, such ZF TRW’s EPB. In caliper integrated systems, the brake caliper provides a connection between hydraulic actuation of the foot brake and electrically actuated parking brake. The motor or transmission unit (actuator), which operates the parking brake, is screw-fixed directly to the brake caliper housing. The parking brake is actuated via a switch in the vehicle interior. The absence of a hand brake lever frees up space inside the vehicle. With no hand brake cables, there are no temperature problems (such as freezing) or mechanical wear, offering optimum brake power in all conditions.”


The improved passive safety features included various versions to keep vehicles from rolling. For example, one article notes: “On the other hand if the driver forgets to apply the park brake it may be programmed to operate automatically, if the gear select lever is in Park or Neutral and the seat belt is released as the door is opened. Not all manufacturers offer this sort of facility.”

TRW’s auto-park feature specifically applies the parking brake in scenarios in which the vehicle transmission is in a gear other than Park and the driver opens the door to exit. According to a 2002 technical paper by a TRW engineer: “Another conceivable function is an automatic application command if the driver leaves the driving seat when the vehicle is at a standstill (e.g. detected by seat-occupant detection or the door switch).”

Some manufacturers use this type of technology. For example, the Hyundai Genesis, as far back as 2010, has a feature called Auto Hold in models with the Electric Parking Brake (EPB): “The AUTO HOLD keeps the vehicle stopped after the driver brings the vehicle to a complete stop with the foot brake and releases the brake pedal.”  The AUTO HOLD doesn’t operate when the driver’s door is open and/or the Shift lever is in Park. However, it automatically switches to the EPB in a variety of scenarios, including: “the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled and the driver’s door is open.”

In the 2014 model year, FCA added a similar feature to the Jeep Cherokee: “Safehold is a safety feature of the Electric Park Brake System that will engage the park brake automatically if the vehicle is left unsecured while the ignition switch is in RUN.” For automatic transmissions, the park brake will automatically engage if the vehicle is at a standstill, there is no attempt to depress the brake pedal or accelerator pedal, the seat belt is unbuckled and the driver door is open.

In the 2016 Monostable shifter recall campaign, Fiat Chrysler fixed the rollaway problem in some of its vehicles by installing a different strategy – also called AutoPark. FCA describes it “is an enhanced securement strategy which places the vehicle in “PARK” if the driver attempts to exit the vehicle before placing the rotary gear shift selector in the “PARK” position.” Rather than apply a parking brake, this feature – which can be included in any vehicle with an E-shift control and minimal software, is used by other manufacturers, actually moves the transmission into the Park position. FCA also added this feature to the 2017 Dodge Ram.

As more vehicle makes and models employ electronic shifters or add electric parking brakes, it may be possible to reduce the number of rollaway incidents. In the meantime, rollaway caused by design errors (including those that increase the likelihood of operator error), manufacturing defects and mechanical failures will continue to wreak its unique form of property and human damage.

NHTSA’s King Side-Steps Keyless Question

Heidi King is probably going to be the 16th administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But this week, the agency’s current deputy administrator took some heat from the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at her confirmation hearing over a variety of unresolved safety issues – including keyless ignition.

Under intense questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about the “defective” design on most keyless ignition systems, King declined to commit to moving the agency forward to a Final Rule on Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 Anti-Theft and Rollaway. The agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in December 2011, which would have required automakers – among other things – to install louder, and more uniform audible warnings to alert a driver who exits with the fob and inadvertently leaves the vehicle engine running.

King avoided a direct answer to Blumenthal’s request that the agency resume rulemaking, investigate all of the carbon monoxide poisoning deaths attributed to keyless vehicles, and raise the profile of this issue among the public.

“Absolutely on number 3,” King said. But she was purposefully vague about agreeing to further actions.

“As you know, it’s heartbreaking, but hundreds of Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year because of combustion and confined spaces, she said, later adding: “We will continue to [sic] scrutinizing the facts and acting as we are allowed within the law.”

Safety Research & Strategies has been studying the carbon monoxide and rollaway hazard issues introduced by keyless systems with push-button ignitions since 2009 and sharing its findings with NHTSA. The Safety Record has been reporting on issue since 2011, breaking stories about the 2014 NHTSA compliance probe into keyless systems ( NHTSA Opens Smart Key Compliance Probe)  and more recently, GM’s quiet implementation of automatic engine shutdown feature (General Motors Quietly Installs Keyless Engine Shutoff ). But it was a recent front-page New York Times story on the safety issues that keyless ignition that re-ignited the discussion about finalizing the rule and investigating CO deaths tied to keyless ignitions.

One note The Safety Record thought that everyone ought to hit a lot harder is that three automakers that we know of – Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler – have installed automatic engine shutoffs on at least some of their keyless models. Manufacturers hated NHTSA’s 2011 proposal because they thought the decibel level for the audible alert that would be required was too loud. Automakers are loathe to implement features that annoy their customers – it’s a thread of concern that continues to show up. That’s why an automatic engine shut-off, set for a reasonable length of time is a good engineered solution. The software fix is inexpensive modern vehicles contain all the required hardware to make this happen.  

In 2011, the agency rejected the possibility of such a regulation, arguing that they couldn’t pick an interval after which the vehicle would automatically shut down. But maybe it’s time to re-think that. Or maybe the agency will follow a time-honored tradition and wait long enough for 90 percent of the industry to do it voluntarily, and then publish a new Final Rule.

King is slated to replace former NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, who resigned nearly 16 months ago, after two years at the agency’s helm. While there, he garnered a reputation as the most aggressive enforcement chief since Joan Claybrook in the 1970s. Under Rosekind, the agency racked up record civil penalties, and took over administering the massive Takata inflator defect recalls.

Yet, Rosekind left a raft of unfinished items, prompting Blumenthal and Sen. Ed Markey (D Mass.) to ask King about the status of 10 Congressionally mandated rulemakings on issues ranging from motorcoach safety to side impact tests for children’s car seats.

President Donald Trump appointed King as Deputy Administrator in October, and she has been acting as interim head of the agency since. An economist and research scientist, King returned to government service after a three year stint as Global Director of Environmental Health and Safety Risk for GE Capital. King also worked as a Regulatory Policy Analyst for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1998 to 2000 and from 2007 to 2011, under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. She was the Chief Economist for U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011 to 2013.

Some in industry are prepared to welcome her. At a recent tire industry conference, Tracey Norberg, of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association praised King, noting her “experience with economics and science. When they brief her, she asks tough questions,” Norberg said. “It will be good to make sure there are policies that benefit industry move forward.”


Tire Industry Declares End to Era of Recall Apathy

If one listened closely in the Sonesta Hilton Head Resort meeting room at the 2018 Clemson Global Tire Conference, one could hear the strains of Kumbaya, as the Tire Industry Association and the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association announced a new alliance to address the longstanding problems of the tire recall system. They didn’t announce much else.

The occasion was a half-hour presentation on the tire registration and recall system at the mid-April conference by David Martin, category director of tools and supply for American Tire Distributors Inc., and the current TIA president and John Evankovich, director of Sam’s Club Tire and Battery Centers, and TIA board secretary.  

TIA Executive Director Roy Littlefield introduced their talk with a confession: “Tire registration the most emotional issue for tire retailers. We now have over 10,000 members and we have seen an incredible increase in membership because of the emphasis on tire registration and recall. We have to look at how current technology can improve a system that has been outdated from the beginning.”

Then, Martin and Evankovich devoted most of their talk to recounting the regulatory history of tire registration. Nearly a half century of TIA and USTMA indifference to the system that is the foundation of the recalled tire recovery effort has produced correspondingly dismal rates – an average of 30 percent, compared to the 72 percent and above rates for recalled vehicles, equipment or child restraints. That’s because for most of the regulation’s history, the two lobbied to offload their responsibilities onto each other, or dump everything on the consumer. For example, in the early 1980s, tire dealers persuaded Congress to remove them from the tire recall system – the regulations only required dealers to hand their customers a registration card to be filled out and returned to the manufacturer.

But in 2015, the Fix America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act brought their existential struggle out into public view. The FAST Act compels NHTSA to write regulations requiring independent dealers to maintain customer tire purchase information and electronically transmit those records to tire manufacturers. The former Rubber Manufacturers Association (now USTMA) lobbied hard for that. The TIA won a provision requiring the Secretary of Transportation to examine the feasibility of requiring tire manufacturers to include an electronic TIN on every tire.

“You would not think you would see the TIA and the USTMA standing together,” conceded panelist Jay Spears, Continental Tire’s Director of Standards and Regulation, during a Q & A session. “We did not have the same opinion and we fought it out in public, which is not a good look for anyone.” 

While NHTSA quietly works on its Congressional to-do list, the USTMA and the TIA decided to it might be better to work together. Their discussions, described as “eye-opening,” led to the revelation that understanding each other’s perspectives was critical toward reaching a solution.

Interspersed with the history lesson were a number of comments on the system’s failures. Evankovich noted that the system is still basically a paper-and-pencil system: “The fact is if you look at it today and where we started – it’s basically the same – we are using the same technology. Things have not changed very much.” (In 1970, advanced technology consisted of liquid crystal displays and pocket calculators.)

Martin admitted that the industry had not done a good job training tire techs and sellers to properly register tires: “Education and outreach – There’s been a lack of real lack of getting the information out to installers so they will understand the proper process. We’ve just been sending out cards and it hasn’t been effective.”

But the session did not focus on solutions. When asked if a unique identifier for each tire would benefit the recall process, Martin only noted “it was a consideration that has been discussed,”

The group agreed that the solution would be rooted in technology which would impose costs on manufacturers and retailers alike, but no one would venture an opinion on what either would be.

“Both sides know that technology isn’t free,” says Evankovich. “There is going a cost associated with  whether it’s from technology that goes into a tire, whether it’s from [point of sale systems] that can handle advanced capabilities, whether it’s a scanner to scan TIN numbers, I don’t think any one answer is 100 percent right today.”

For the consumer and for the service technicians, the bottom line is this: there are too many ways for old or recalled tires to stay or be mounted on a vehicle, with catastrophic consequences. This is a problem created by both the tire sellers and the tire manufacturers, who have not supported a workable system to accurately register all tires, to ensure that manufacturers have all the data, and to provide a comprehensive, easy or quick way to determine if a tire has been recalled.  While the FAST Act requires NHTSA to create a tire recall Tire Identification Number (TIN) look-up, it has not done so yet. In the meantime, the USTMA launched one in November 2017, but only its eight members participate, so it’s not complete.

And on the subject of tire age, consumers and tire techs can choose from a set of confusing options. Most auto manufacturers have set six years as the recommended service life limit on tires. Some in the rubber industry argue that tires are ageless; some have declared a 10-year service life.

In a March deposition, a TIA official testified that if a full-size spare will be used as a replacement tire, the shop should check to see if it has been recalled. Really? Only check the full-sized spare? What about the rest of the damned tires?

These are flimsy, ad-hoc standards of care, being created in the vacuum left by the flimsy, ad hoc tire registration and recall system.

The Safety Record Blog has been writing about aged tires and the broken tire recall and registration system, if you want to catch up, follow the links below for a sampling:

RMA Launches Feel-Good Tire Recall Database

Improving the Recall System for the 21st Century

The Wrong Fix for the Broken Recall System

"Aged" Tire Case Numbers Grow: Spares and Used tires Top the List

Not Very FAST Act Tackles Recall, Tire Issues, Closes Rental Loophole

The Safety Record Blog means it sincerely when we say that it’s nice to see that manufacturers and tire retailers finally admit that the current system sucks and that it hasn’t advanced technologically since (if you are old enough) you played Pong. But we are less jazzed about the Goldilocks-like looking-for–the-technology-that-is-just-right attitude toward action. Consumers have been waiting 48 years for the industry to commit itself to taking unsafe tires off the road, and we guess they’ll have to wait some more.

General Motors Quietly Installs Keyless Engine Shutoff

In 2011, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was considering countermeasures to the carbon monoxide hazard introduced by keyless ignition systems, it flat out rejected the idea of an automatic engine shut-off.  The agency argued that there was no good way to come up with a rule that would include a set time for the engine to shut itself off if the driver exited with the fob and inadvertently left the engine running.

“There are scenarios, such as leaving pets in the vehicle with the air conditioning or heating system on while the driver shops or is at a restaurant, where an automatic shut off of the propulsion system would have adverse results. It is our understanding that some drivers may stay in their vehicles for hours, for example, to sleep, with the air conditioning or heating system on. For the pet owner or the person staying in the vehicle for an extended period, it would be inconvenient if the propulsion system had to be restarted every 15 minutes or so,” the agency wrote in the NPRM.

Of course, the agency could have come up with a performance standard in which an idling vehicle in an enclosed space could only generate so many ppm of CO – whatever could lead to dangerous levels seeping into an adjoining structure – or some variant. But never mind – that’s not the news here. By Jove, now two major automakers have figured it out, over-heated puppies and car-nappers notwithstanding. And one of them – General Motors – kept this information from its customers for four years!

Both Ford and GM first implemented automatic engine shut down features in some of their MY 2013 vehicles.

According to owner’s manuals, Ford’s Automatic Engine Shutdown system automatically “shuts down the engine if it has been idling for an extended period. The ignition also turns off in order to save battery power. Before the engine shuts down, a message appears in the information display showing a timer counting down from 30 seconds. If you do not intervene within 30 seconds, the engine shuts down. Another message appears in the information display to inform you that the engine has shut down in order to save fuel.”

GM’s Extended Parking feature works this way in the 2015 Chevy Tahoe:

Extended Parking It is better not to park with the vehicle running. If the vehicle is left while running, follow the proper steps to be sure the vehicle will not move and there is adequate ventilation. See Shifting Into Park 0 259 and Engine Exhaust 0 261. If the vehicle is left in P (Park) while running and the Remote Keyless Entry (RKE) transmitter is outside the vehicle, the vehicle will turn off after one hour. If the vehicle is left in P (Park) while running and the RKE transmitter is inside, the vehicle will run for two hours. At the end of the second hour, the vehicle will turn off. The timer will reset if the vehicle is taken out of P (Park) while it is running.”

Based on GM technical service descriptions the earlier versions of Extended Parking allowed the vehicle to run in two 2.5 hour cycles, for a total run-time of five hours – if the fob was still in the vehicle while the engine was left running. The automaker eventually reduced it to two one-hour cycles in some models and two 1.5 hour cycles in others.

Ford didn’t exactly make a public relations splash when it added the automatic engine shut-off in the 2013 Ford Edge, Ford Fusion Titanium and Titanium Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ, but at least it included a description of the safety measure in the owner’s manuals.

GM, according to service descriptions, implemented an engine shutdown feature in the 2013 Buick LaCrosse, Verano and Regal, the Chevy Cruze and Malibu and the Cadillac ATS, SRX, and XTS, without so much as a whisper to drivers. GM continued to expand the application of what it eventually branded the “Extended Parking Feature,” until all of its vehicles had it in 2017. Then, GM included a description in its owner’s manuals. 

Why the big secret?

Curiouser and Curiouser

Let’s push some timelines together.

In February 2009, Mary Rivera, a former college professor, suffered permanent brain damage when she unknowingly left her Lexus ES 350 idling in the garage beneath her home.  Her partner, Ernest Cordelia, died of CO poisoning.

(SRS began researching this issue in 2009. In August 2010 we met with the agency to express our concerns, and have submitted comments to the 2011 FMVSS 114 docket. SRS repeatedly emphasized to NHTSA that “the introduction of electronic keys in combination with push-button ignition systems has introduced new scenarios under which a driver can exit the vehicle, key fob in hand with the motor running, or with the engine off but the vehicle in a gear other than park. With today’s quiet engines, drivers can leave a vehicle, travel great distances from the vehicle with the key in their pockets while the engine is running or the transmission in neutral – all without being aware that they have done so. As we are seeing from owner complaints and litigation, the marriage of electronics with ignitions and locks have resulted in unintended consequences: carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaway crashes and easy thefts allowing manufacturers an erroneous – and as far as the consumer is aware – secret definition of the key that allows drivers to mistakenly believe that when they exit the vehicle with the fob, the engine is off and the vehicle transmission locked in the Park position – is antithetical to the spirit and letter of FMVSS 114.” You can read them here.)

In early 2009, SAE formed the Keyless Ignition Subcommittee in response to safety concerns and “concern regarding the myriad different ways manufacturers are implementing keyless ignition features,” as described in NHTSA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to fix the hazards introduced by keyless ignition systems. “The committee consisted of experts in the study of how humans interact with machines (human factors experts) and designers of keyless ignition systems from auto manufacturers and suppliers,” according to the NPRM. Ford and GM each had a representative on this committee.

As we’ve said many times, the great downside to electronic key systems is the transition of the key from a physical object to an invisible electronic code – the average consumer doesn’t really understand this, and conflates the fob with the key, because you need the former to start the vehicle, and because manufacturers brand the fob with names like Smart Key, or the visual alerts in the vehicle say “Key not Detected” in reference to the fob. However, unlike a traditional key, the fob plays no role in turning off the vehicle. When a driver is standing in his kitchen with a traditional car key in his hand, it is certain that the engine is off and his vehicle transmission is in Park, because you can’t remove the key otherwise. A driver holding a key fob in his hand has no such assurances. In many models, you can turn the engine off with the transmission in any position, and in all keyless vehicles you can take the fob with you, leave the motor running, and it will not turn off, just because the key fob is out of range – contrary to what many believe. No, for that you need an engineered software solution.

In the fall of 2010, stories about carbon monoxide deaths begin to circulate in the mainstream press, first, the September 2010 death of Chastity Glisson in a keyless Lexus IS250 and in November, the New York Daily News broke the Rivera story.

In January 2011, SAE issued its recommended practice J2948 for keyless ignition controls “based on the subcommittee members' experience with their company's vehicles and systems, knowledge of consumers' comments about the operation of the systems, knowledge of human factors engineering and, in some cases, knowledge of proprietary studies done during the development of their products (actual data was not shared with the group),” according the NPRM.

SAE J2948 noted four “errors” drivers might make: the inability to start and stop the vehicle propulsion system; exiting the vehicle with the automatic transmission in a non-parking gear; exiting the vehicle while the vehicle propulsion system is enabled; and exiting the vehicle while the vehicle propulsion system is disabled, but the accessory or electrical systems are active.”

The intent of the standard is stated as: “to help minimize these errors.”

In December 2011, NHTSA published its NPRM and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Ford and GM, immediately starts clutching its pearls over the very idea that NHTSA would try to make a rule to address these same conditions that the industry decided to address in early 2009.  

The Alliance proceeded to take a strip off the agency’s hide for attempting rulemaking on “anecdotal evidence,” provided by Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) in which consumers reported rollaways or deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning when they mistakenly left their vehicles running. And the Alliance admonished NHTSA to do some human factors testing – even though it’s pretty clear that the automakers themselves didn’t do any before they installed keyless systems.

At the time there are only those two publicly known deaths – both in Toyotas. (Since then, the tally of reported carbon monoxide deaths has risen to 26 – including a couple who died in 2006 carbon monoxide deaths involving a Toyota Avalon.) Notice again that public knowledge follows industry efforts already underway that acknowledged the need to address the hazards of keyless ignitions.

In calendar 2012, both Ford and GM released MY 2013 keyless vehicles with automatic shut-off systems. Ford quietly put the information in the owner’s manuals; GM was completely silent on the issue.

Think about this timing. Given what we know about automaker’s development cycles, a Ford or GM plan to develop and implement an automatic engine cut-off feature was likely already well in the works somewhere between the time the SAE keyless ignition subcommittee convenes and the agency publishes its NPRM – yet its trade representative excoriates the agency for attempting regulations designed to prevent drivers from exiting their keyless vehicles with the fob and the engine running, by mandating what industry considers audible warnings that are too loud. Why? Because buzzers and beeps will annoy customers – a cardinal automotive design sin? Or, because at least two of their major members were quietly installing a much better solution?

And what does NHTSA know? In 2014, the agency launched a compliance evaluation of 2013-2014 keyless ignition vehicles from Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia, to test how their keyless ignition systems operate under different scenarios in which to determine if the Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention Standard had been violated. Among the population tested: two Fords and all of the GM vehicles had the engine idle shut-off feature. Specifically, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ and the 2013 Buick Verano and LaCrosse and the 2014 Ford Edge and the Buick Regal, Cadillac SRX and XTS. 

In the Information Request sent to each manufacturer, the agency asked: Describe in detail how the Subject Vehicles' engine/motor is stopped or turned off. Include in your response, how hard and long the driver must press the start/stop button, to which device the code or other electrical signal is sent (i.e., immobilizer or engine control unit ("ECU")), and which devices are turned off or deactivated by the ECU (i.e., starter, fuel pump, fuel injection system, etc.). Specify when exactly those devices are turned off or deactivated (i.e. after the engine/motor stop control is pressed to turn off the engine/motor, after the driver's door is opened, etc.)

Did Ford or General Motors include an explanation of the feature in their answers? We’ll venture a guess: No.

Why Does GM Keep It Quiet?

It is odd that GM chose not to tell customers or even dealership techs about this feature, until long after it was implemented in its vehicles.

In 2015, the public learns that GM had an engine idle shutoff feature in the 2014 Volt, as a result of a recall. GM launched campaign 15V145 to retrofit 2011-2013 Chevrolet Volts with software that would automatically shut off the engine after a set time of idling, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. The recall states:

“If a driver exits his/her vehicle and inadvertently leaves the vehicle “on” (because the driver fails to react to the cues and warning chimes emitted by the vehicle to alert the driver that the vehicle has not been turned off), after a period of time, the vehicle’s battery will drain and the vehicle’s gas engine will begin to run. If the gas engine runs for long periods of time within an enclosed space, such as a garage, carbon monoxide could build up in the enclosed space and potentially cause injury.”

The automaker’s Part 573 submission to NHTSA noted that it had initiated an investigation in August 2014, allegedly after a single customer complaint about the build-up of carbon monoxide in a garage caused by the engine inadvertently left running. (GM told Automotive News that it was aware of two carbon monoxide injuries.)

And here’s where it gets weird. In GM’s defect chronology, which accompanies all Part 573 submissions, the automaker wrote: “it was determined that the 2014 model year and beyond Volts contain software that automatically shuts down the vehicle after being left idle in a run state for a specific amount of time.”

Now, by MY 2014, Buicks, Cadillacs and all of the Chevrolets had an automatic engine shutdown feature – a significant subset had had it since calendar 2012 (MY 2013)! Yet, GM talks about a disembodied discovery, like it had no idea that it had been systematically installing an engine shutdown system through its carlines since 2012.

Its defect chronology continues:

“GM’s Safety and Field Action Decision Authority (SFADA) concluded that, because the investigation revealed customer error in leaving the vehicle in a run state was the primary factor contributing to the condition, and considering the warnings provided to the driver that the vehicle was left running and the low number of complaints relating to this issue, the appropriate remedy would be a customer satisfaction program to update the vehicle software to power down the vehicle if the vehicle was left running for an extended period of time.”

Super weird that they only want to do a customer satisfaction campaign because of bad, bad drivers, since, clearly, GM had long ago decided that this was a hazard, and had engineered a solution that had been implemented more than two years earlier in non-hybrid vehicles, where there isn’t even the possibility that the quiet electric powered motor will revert to the gasoline engine, if left running long enough.

According to the GM defect chronology, they only decided to move to a recall, at NHTSA’s suggestion. Did NHTSA know that GM already had a cut-off feature in so many of its models?

The next time GM publicly reveals the existence of this feature in other vehicles is to its dealers and their technicians in a series of technical service bulletins that appear to begin in 2015. Did the absence of an explanation for this feature lead to customer complaints about the engine shutting down? An examination of consumer complaints to NHTSA shows that drivers with models that employed the 2.5 to 5 hour run strategy in the earlier versions of the Extended Parking feature complained that their vehicle did not shut down. This driver of a 2014 Buick Verano was so frustrated, he filed two different complaints with NHTSA:

“This is my second complaint. My wife forgot to press the stop engine button again because of a distraction.  As a result she burned a quarter tank of gas while she was gone from the vehicle. Why is there not a safety shut off like the ten minute shut off in remote start mode? If this was in my integral garage I could be dead from carbon monoxide. Is this another shove it under the rug like the GM key scandal. Since so many vehicles are going to this technology why hasn't this been looked at? My wife is only 61 and in good health. What of the older folks with problems to do?”

The Preliminary Information technical bulletins to GM service technicians inform them that “Some customers may comment that the engine stops running after extended idle with shifter in Park.” No repair is required, the bulletin states – just educate the customer about the existence of the extended parking feature.

So, customers didn’t know, the dealership techs didn’t know, GM’s Safety and Field Action Decision Authority apparently didn’t know.

And what does NHTSA know about this? If they’ve been paying attention, they know from the TSBs that GM filed with the agency

How many other automakers have secretly added this countermeasure? 


Read The Safety Record Blog prior coverage on Keyless Ignition here



Seat Heaters Still Too Hot

In October 2014, Keith and Tammie Jo Smith took a two-hour car ride from Pine Bluff, Arkansas to their home in Bastrop, Louisiana. According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, in Monroe Louisiana, as he exited his 2008 Chevrolet Suburban, Keith Smith put his hands on the driver’s seat and noticed that it seemed unusually hot to the touch. But, he never noticed it while driving, because an on-the-job injury had rendered Smith a paraplegic since July 1991.

That night however, when Keith undressed to bathe, his wife noticed that the skin on his left buttock appeared to be burned. When the Smiths sought medical treatment, they learned that Keith had suffered severe burns, requiring extensive medical treatment and reconstructive surgery. Keith’s paraplegia already made his skin vulnerable to break down, and even after multiple procedures, he still had to be monitored every day for redness, blisters, and other signs of skin breakdown, the complaint alleges.

Subsequent tests of the Suburban’s seat heater found that the surface temperature could get as hot as 140ºF (60ºC).

In 1947, a pair of Harvard researchers A.R. Mortiz and F.C. Henriques Jr. conducted seminal research on the effect of hot temperatures on human skin. Studies of Thermal Injury II:  The Relative Importance of Time and Surface Temperature in the Causation of Cutaneous Burns, is the source of every voluntary and many internal manufacturer standards, covering heated products – from pulse oximeters to vehicle seat heaters. Moritz and Henriques examined the relationship between time and temperature using pig skin first, then human skin, along with mathematical modeling. They found that in the humans, the lowest surface temperature responsible for cutaneous burning was 44ºC (111ºF) when exposed for six hours. As the contact temperatures increased above 44˚C, the time to damage is cut in half for each 1˚C rise in temperature up to about 51˚C (124˚F). 

Despite this well-established threshold, some automakers are still designing seat heaters to work in ranges that exceed it, are still manufacturing seat heaters that clearly get much hotter in places than their design specifications, and are still foregoing simple countermeasures that their peers have been implementing since the 1980s. These design failures have led to burn holes in clothes and seat covers, minor burns to some and severe and permanent injuries in occupants with lower body sensory deficits, such as diabetics, paraplegics, quadriplegics and individuals with neuropathy.

In February 2011, Safety Research & Strategies, with support from Dr. David Greenhalgh, a nationally recognized expert in burn surgery and burn care, and chief of burns at Shriners Hospitals for Children in northern California, and other members of the burn rehabilitation community, called upon the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association to address this issue. (See It’s Time to Make Seat Heaters Safer) In a Safety Record Blog post, we wrote:

"With no government or industry-wide standards, manufacturers have installed a variety of seat heater systems – some that reach temperatures significantly above human tolerances or have no automatic shut-off mechanism – or both. While most drivers know when to turn a hot seat off, occupants with lower body sensory deficits don’t feel the burn. The medical literature has been documenting serious and permanent burn injuries from car seat heaters to occupants with paralysis or diabetes since 2003. Disabled motorists have been complaining about the problem to NHTSA since, at least, 2002. The industry’s response has been to bury a warning in the owner’s manual. NHTSA’s approach to seat heater defects has been: no flames, no problem. These are preventable injuries – and it’s time government and industry began preventing them."

A Lack of Substantive Action

While we heard nothing from the Alliance or the mobility dealers, NHTSA responded that it would encourage the Society of Automotive Engineers to devise a voluntary standard.

In January 2016, SAE International issued Recommended Practice J3047.

“Recommendation for Acceptable Operating Parameters of Heated Automobile Seats in Order to Mitigate Occupant Injury” was written to “promote a temperature and duration guideline that mitigates the risk of thermal injuries to the heated seat user,” and include visual cues that the seat heater is on, and warnings in owner’s manuals for users with lower body sensory deficits. The practice included an equation that included the time in hours and the threshold temperature to achieve a first degree burn, with a maximum setting at 43ºC. Like all voluntary standards, the threshold was based on the work of Moritz and Henriques, and ISO 13732, which provides temperature threshold values for burns that occur when human skin is in contact with a hot solid surface, but does not set surface temperature limit values. The practice suggested a few strategies automakers could use to ensure that seats did not exceed the threshold: using an ECU to monitor the heater system via a thermostat or temperature sensor, or set the maximum operating temperature to 43 °C, or install an auto adjustment feature that turns the heater down or off before it exceeds the time/temperature threshold.

Indeed, some manufacturers have used lower maximum temperatures and shut-off timers since the 1980s. The 1995 Volvo 850, the 1996 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the 2006 Ford F-150, the 2007 Dodge Charger, and the 2008 Ford Mustang use shut-off strategies. The 1983 Volvo limited the seat surface temperature to 86˚F; the 2006 Saab limited the seat temperature to 104ºF.

But the automakers that have lagged their peers in adopting designs that prevent seat heaters from overheating have done little else.

Dr. Greenhalgh says his team continues to see burns – particularly affecting diabetics – from the heat output of vehicle HVAC systems, but has not treated any seat heater burn cases lately.

“It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen any activity,” he added.

But, other doctors have – recent civil complaints show that incidents continue to occur. For example, in November 2016 after a two-hour drive, a paraplegic living in Memphis, Tennessee, alleges that he sustained severe burns on his buttocks and scrotum caused by the seat heater in his 2013 Kia Sorento SX. In August 2015, Wayne Butler of Harris Heights, Texas alleges that he was severely burned in his 2008 Chevrolet Silverado during a 30-minute drive, in which the seat heating system generated temperatures over 130ºF.

In 2003, Dr. Greenhalgh and his colleagues, Drs. Pirko Maguiña and Tina L. Palmieri wrote Car Seat Heaters: A Potential Hazard for Burns, which presented the case of a 48-year-old paraplegic who sustained third-degree burns on his buttocks after driving for 20 minutes with the seat heater on. The researchers tested the seat surface temperature of a Chrysler Town and Country vehicle and found that that one of the vehicle’s four heating panels reached a localized temperature of 120°F. At this temperature third-degree burns can occur within 10 minutes.

“The car seat heaters should never reach these temperatures,” they wrote in the Journal of Burn Injury Rehabilitation. “Because there is no warning light on the dashboard to signal when the heaters are ON, patients with impaired sensation may not be aware that the car seat heater is on. In addition, the heating elements should have a control device to turn them off when they overheat. The seat heaters could be improved if they offered a temperature control instead of just an on/off button that sets to maximal heat every time. Most importantly the seat heaters on every car should be tested to prevent accidents with heaters that come defective from the factory.”

Seven years later, Dr. Kenneth Diller, a member of the SAE sub-committee that wrote the standard, and a defense expert witness who teaches biomedical engineering at the University of Texas’s Cockrell School of Engineering; chastised Greenhalgh, Maguina and Palmieri alleging they misinterpreted Moritz and Henriques research,  by stating that at 120ºF  “third-degree

burns can occur within 10 minutes.”  Diller argued that the Moritz and Henriques data showed only second-degree burns would result at that time and temperature.

“Although this article has now been in the literature for many years, it is not too late to set the record straight regarding the scientific basis of the recommendations therein. Hopefully, professionals working in the field of seat heater design will have a more accurate guide to consider in determining the criteria for the regime of safe operation.”

The trio’s reply, published in the same issue, schooled Diller on the details of the Mortiz and Henriques experiments, showing that they had accurately used that foundational research and had made no errors in their conclusions. They noted “the patient discussed in the article clearly suffered from a third-degree burn as a result of using a car seat heater. That patient, being a paraplegic, was at a higher risk than most people for a burn injury because of lack of sensation and pressure to the area, both of which increase the risk of any injury…The burns that we treat, just as we described for the person in our car seat heater report, are real. Burns often lead to lifelong scars and occasionally, deaths.”

Greenhalgh says that the attack was odd: “People write papers and disagree, but not in that way. There’s theory and then there’s the real world, and it was very surprising for someone to be so vehement in making a big issue of telling people in the burn world that burns don’t hurt people.”

One Jury Verdict, Lots of Settlements

In the last decade, attorney Daniel DeFeo, based in Kansas City Missouri, has handled more than 20 civil liability cases in which a plaintiff with lower body sensory deficits suffered serious and permanent injuries.

In the course of his casework, DeFeo has tested seat heaters from several different automakers, and found that all exceeded the recommended threshold in places, hitting temperatures of 120-150ºF in spots. He’s also identified basic design errors in the two types of seat heater designs. The wire-grid style seat heater used in older model vehicles tends to develop hot spots near the seat bite, where the seat heater wires join with vehicle’s wiring harness. Or, the wires can become fatigued and short out. Newer vehicles use a forced hot air system, in which warmed air is circulated through a network of ducts in the seat. In those designs, hot spots can develop at the exhaust ports.

In either design, if the seat’s thermostat is located away from the hot spots, it will not accurately regulate the surface temperature as required by the manufacturer’s own standards or by the medical community’s recommendations that seat temperatures not exceed 105 º F, DeFeo says.

The vast majority of seat heater cases have been settled before trial. One exception was a $500,000 verdict for the plaintiff in a California case. Erica Davis, a paraplegic who became the first woman to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair and the 2012 National Paratriathlon champion, suffered severe burns from her thigh to her buttocks from a malfunctioning seat heater in 2009 Chevrolet truck. In 2013, Davis successfully sued the dealership Chase and Shellworth Chevrolet. General Motors, which assisted the dealership in its defense, issued a statement in response:

“Although it was not a party to this case, GM believes the seat heater in Ms. Davis' vehicle is safe and performed appropriately. While respecting the jury's verdict, GM does not believe the seat heater caused Ms. Davis' alleged injuries.”

That’s a typical defense, says DeFeo.

“They defend them with the fictional argument that it’s not a burn, it’s a pressure sore. It creates a question of fact,” he says. “They don’t have a credible defense. In some cases, their own specifications prove the defect in their designs.”

GM is a case in point. In deposition testimony in the Smith case, two GM experts on seat heater design have conceded that that GM’s design parameters allow a maximum temperature for its seat heaters that are within the temperature/duration range that will cause burns to occupants. One of the experts, Louis Carlin, a Senior Technical Expert in Engineering Analysis in GM’s Global Vehicle Safety division, acknowledges that it is possible that the seat surface temperature could get as high as 46ºC and it would still be within the GM design specifications. In addition, Carlin acknowledges in his deposition that a person in contact with the seat for up to 8 hours can burn at temperatures lower than 46 ºC.

Other GM employees such as Ray Bush, the former manager of the GM’s mobility program, agreed in an April 2014 deposition, upon reviewing photographs, that the wounds of one victim were “severe “burns, and  “I think if I was the engineer or the person  responsible, I certainly wouldn't want to cause injury to anyone.”

DeFeo finds it perplexing that automakers like GM have relied on owner’s manual warnings, added in the latter half of 2010, rather than add a time-out feature to their seat heaters or recommend to the customers in their mobility programs that the seat heater be disconnected.

The burns suffered by para- and quadraplegics usually occur in the area of the ischial tuberosities – boney bumps located on the back side of the ischium, three bones that form the pelvis. And because of their unique risk of developing pressure sores, para- and quadriplegics are many more times at risk of skin breakdown after a severe burn. For clients that had active lifestyles, an encounter with an over-heated seat forced them to give up leisure activities such as horseback riding, skiing and hunting.  

Terry Cole, a successful businessman, and an incomplete paraplegic (his spinal cord was bruised, rather than severed in 1976) had gone to China in 2006 for stem cell treatments, which restored his ability to grip a ball, stand, and take a few steps on his own. But in November 2007, Cole was severely burned by the seat heater in his 2007 Cadillac Escalade on a 45 mile trip from a riverboat casino in Caruthersville, Missouri to his home in Sikeston.  His recovery forced him to lay on his side for three months, putting him back in his pre-treatment condition.

In 2009, he sued GM, Amerigon, the seat heater supplier and Sapaugh Motors, which sold him the Escalade. The GM bankruptcy stayed the litigation against the automaker, but the case against the other two defendants proceeded, with GM providing legal guidance. DeFeo says that the case ended in a mistrial after Amerigon violated the court’s orders by injecting false testimony into the trial. The judge also imposed monetary sanctions against Amerigon, and the Cole case settled before a second trial.

“Terry Cole lost everything he had gained,” DeFeo says. “It’s major damage, it’s the plastic surgery, it’s pain, it’s expensive. It’s a significant life-changing injury and they will have skin breakdown again.”


Is Goodyear Headed for NHTSA Sanctions?

Six years after Goodyear’s efforts to conceal the defects of its G159 truck tire enraged a U.S. District Court judge, NHTSA appears ready to take its own bite out of the tiremaker’s hide.

To close out 2017, the agency opened a Preliminary Evaluation into the field performance of the tire, based on claim and complaint data obtained via “a court order authorizing the release of Goodyear records to NHTSA.”

As loyal readers of this blog know, that case is Haeger v. Goodyear, one that we’ve written about in our decade of coverage on the G159s trail of destruction. (See links below to The Safety Record’s G159 coverage.) 

In June 2003, LeRoy and Donna Haeger, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Barry and Suzanne Haeger, of Tucson, Arizona were on their way to a medical symposium in New Mexico, when the right front tire – a G159 275/70R.22.5 – on their Spartan Gulfstream Class A motorhome, suffered a catastrophic tread separation. The steer axle failure caused the motorhome to become uncontrollable and it careened off Interstate 25 and down an embankment, where it came to rest on its side. Barry Haeger escaped with minor injuries. But his parents and wife were all pinned under parts of the collapsed motorhome and all suffered major injuries that included multiple fractures, head trauma and nerve damage.

The case, filed in Arizona U.S. District Court in 2005, morphed for more than a decade from a mere product liability case to an indictment of the G159 tire on a motorhome, and of Goodyear’s sleaze-ball trial tactics. (For an easy-to-follow outline of the case, read our Haeger v. Goodyear Timeline.)

At the heart of the controversy was a titanic discovery battle that resulted in fraud charges, career-ending attorney sanctions, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, multiple settlements, and it rages on, still.  In the meantime, LeRoy died of cancer in 2008, still blamed by Goodyear for the crash. Donna Haeger is now in her 80s, and Suzanne Haeger still struggles with partial use of one arm, a permanent injury from the crash. All of the survivors are still coping with the stress of prolonged litigation.

What got NHTSA’s interest was a Moby-Dick of a fact that the Haeger’s attorney, David L. Kurtz sought for 12 years, as relentlessly as Captain Ahab hunting a whale: The failure rate of the G159 on motorhomes. It turns out to be phenomenally high.

Kurtz represented the Haegers in two actions against Goodyear. The first was a civil liability lawsuit filed in U. S. District Court in 2005 and settled confidentially in 2010 without any disclosure of significant Goodyear documents, even though Kurtz suspected that Goodyear had been less than forthcoming. The second lawsuit, filed in Arizona Superior Court in 2013 and, again, confidentially settled in 2017, alleged fraud. In June 2010, Kurtz learned through a Safety Record Blog story that Goodyear had disclosed internal heat and speed tests performed on the G159 in Florida case, Schalmo v. Goodyear  (See Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged into the Public Eye). Armed with that knowledge, Kurtz began to pry the most complete record of G159 failures ever seen outside of Goodyear’s General Counsel office.

By January 2017, Kurtz had forced Goodyear to disclose all of the liability lawsuits: 41, from 1999 to 2010; all of the deaths and injuries: estimated to be 98; all of the property damage claims: more than 600; and all of the warranty adjustments: 3,484. The last piece of the equation – how many out of the 160,000 G159s produced were placed on motorhomes – came a year ago.

In 2006, Goodyear submitted information about the G159 to NHTSA as part of an investigation into Toyo tires. The agency opened Engineering Analysis 05-011 in July 2005 to probe front tire failures in 1995-2000 Country Coach Allure and Intrigue Class A motor homes equipped with Toyo s 275/70R22.5, 275/80R22.S or 12R22.5 (load range H) tires. The Office of Defects Investigation sent peer information requests to Michelin, Goodyear and General Tire in search of a basis of comparison. The agency told Goodyear that it was trying to determine the approximate “failure rates” due to tire blow-out, tread separation, abrupt loss of air, and the like, for front tires manufactured and sold by Goodyear and installed on Class A RVs; and on other vehicle applications.

Hmm. What are the odds that Goodyear gave the agency complete information?

The agency also asked for the number of tires in the specified size or size ranges that Goodyear sold each year since 2000.

All of the peer responses were deemed confidential, so it took Kurtz a while to get Goodyear’s response – through NHTSA via a court order. With this information, Kurtz was able to estimate that only a quarter of the total universe of G159s sold to the motor home market between 1996-2003. With a denominator of 40,000 and a numerator of at least 600 publicly disclosed property damage claims, according to Kurtz, the parts per million failure rate – as typically expressed – of the G159 is somewhere around 15,000 Goodyear representatives have testified that a typical ppm is 3.4 ppm, so a ppm of 15,000 would be beyond extraordinary.

(Only NHTSA or the courts can reveal the data that will bring decision to the calculation. One thing is clear, the rate will be off the charts.)

A Brief History of the G159

Goodyear began producing the G159 in 1996, the design was intended for use on delivery trucks, predominantly traveling on in-town roads making frequent stops. But the tire was also marketed to the motorhome market, because like a delivery truck, Class A motorhomes had six tires and a similar weight capacity. But the reasons behind the dual-market decision are murky, because Goodyear engineers knew from internal testing soon after the tire was offered for sale that the G159 could not withstand the prolonged heat build-up of long-distance highway driving common to RV users.

Goodyear performed at least 26 tests on the G159: crown durability tests, bead durability tests, heat rise tests and DOT endurance tests – most of which were conducted after tire was put on the market. For example, four of the heat rise tests were conducted in April 1996 to “determine the dynamic heat build-up at specific loads, speeds, and inflations.” The tests were conducted on a “67.23 [inch] diameter flywheel.” at 35 miles per hour to simulate highway speed on a road surface and checking the temperature of the tire at certain intervals.

The G159 was developed to withstand temperatures of only 194° F. But testing showed that prolonged use at highway speed could cause the tire to reach temperatures of up to 229˚F, causing a loss of strength in the material components and eventually separation of the tire's structure.

The problems began to appear in the field, almost as soon Class A motorhomes were outfitted with G159 tires. Between 1996 and 1998, RV owners filed 25 tire failure claims Nonetheless, in 1998, as many states raised their highway speed limits to 75 mph, Goodyear raised the G159’s speed rating to keep pace.

In 1999, Goodyear implemented design and compound changes to make the tire more heat-resistant and less prone to tread separations. But this did not stop the flood of failures. Claims rose steadily from 54 in 1999, to 59 in 2000. By the end of 2005, Goodyear had fielded 540 death, injury and property damage tire failure claims, and faced 29 lawsuits.

The constant tread separations forced two motorhome recalls and one customer satisfaction campaign to replace G159s with more robust tires made by other manufacturers.

The tiremaker never told Goodyear about the results of its heat rise test data nor of the tire’s limitations, instead it erroneously advised one of its OEM customers, Fleetwood RV, that “running hotter can take its toll on rubber, and asserted that the average temperature at the belt edge was 160 F at 55 mph, and increased to 185 F at 75 mph.” In November 1998, Goodyear attempted to shift the blame for failure on drivers overloading and underinflating their tires, driving too fast and failing to avoid road hazards. In a letter to Fleetwood, which ultimately tallied 41 tread separations on a G159, Goodyear wrote:

“Fatigue and separation are somewhat allied properties of tire endurance. Both can be adversely affected by excessive conditions of load, deflection, inflation and speed. All of these conditions relate to heat buildup, and heat is the greatest enemy of a tire. Excessive heat will cause a degradation of material properties which in turn can impact the tire's endurance and durability. Tires are designed to perform at specific operating temperatures, which is sometimes called 'equilibrium temperature.' At equilibrium the heat generated within the tire structure is equal to the heat dissipated from the tire surfaces. Exceeding this temperature for short periods of time is not a problem but    exceeding it for long periods begins to cause loss of strength in the material components and eventually separation of the tires structure.”

When Fleetwood questioned whether construction changes in the G159 or the tire’s increased speed rating would account for all of the tread separations, Goodyear wrote:

“A question was raised relative to the possibility of 75 MPH compromising the tire's safety margin. Goodyear evaluates the test results and then determines whether to authorize 75 MPH or keep the tire at 65 MPH. To date if a tire did not meet our standards, the tire remained at a maximum speed rating of 65 MPH. In the case of the tire in question, the tire performed to the level that satisfied our high speed requirements and we approved the tire to 75 MPH.”

In June 1999, Fleetwood recalled 17 Class A American Heritage motorhomes because of inadequate total front tire weight capacity. The company replaced the G159s with a larger Michelin XZA 275/80R22.5. On October 1, 1999, Fleetwood again recalled its 275/70R22.5 Goodyear G159 tires, this time on some 3,400 Class A models made in 1996 to 2000 after four incidents involving two fatalities. The crashes Fleetwood reported to NHTSA occurred on September 15, 1998; July 7, August 29 and September 9, 1999.

According to pleadings in the Haeger case, the Monaco Corporation – another G159 OEM – received a similar set of explanations for the rash of tread separations its customers were experiencing (a total of 93) in August 2000. The failures eventually forced Goodyear to release a Product Service Bulletin announcing that the Monaco Coach Corporation would be issuing a letter to owners of 1999, 2000 and certain 2001 Windsor model Class-A motor homes offering to replace their G159 275/70R22.5 tires with 295/80R22.5 LR H, G391 tires.

Again, Goodyear blamed consumers:

“The letter will inform the customer that it has come to Monaco’s attention that in a number of instances, it was found that tire air pressure was being reduced in order to gain better ride comfort and in doing so tires were operated in an under-inflated and overloaded condition,” the Goodyear bulletin said. “In the interest of customer satisfaction, Goodyear and Monaco are offering to replace the original 275/70R22.5 LR H, G159 with 295/80R22.5 LR H G391 tires. The higher aspect ratio tire will allow customers to operate at a lower inflation pressure that will give a more comfortable ride while maintaining tire loading that is within the operating range of the tire.”

By the first month of 2003, Goodyear stopped making the G159. But they continued to fail on motorhomes, accruing deaths and serious injuries.

Defending the G159

Goodyear’s main line of defense from Day One has been concealment, because the tests showing the G159’s unsuitability for motorhome applications and the huge number of tire failures made any other strategy untenable. During its period of manufacture, it failed to inform its OEM customers of the tire’s limitations. The Safety Record doubts Goodyear has been honest with NHTSA. But it has been in the courtroom where Goodyear did everything it could to keep the real story of the G159 under wraps.

Consider the fate of the deposition of Kim Cox – a Goodyear claims administrator who testified in Phillips v. Goodyear, a 2002 injury and property damage case in San Diego.

During Cox’s June 19, 2003 deposition, Cox, allegedly admitted that Goodyear knew that the G159 tire did not “perform properly” on Class A motor homes.”  The admission was so damning, Goodyear’s attorneys swiftly shut down the deposition, negotiated a settlement and arranged for every scrap of the deposition’s existence to be destroyed. Goodyear even unsuccessfully sought sanctions against the Phillips attorney Guy Ricciardulli for even mentioning its existence to another attorney who had a G159 case in Arizona. (see Goodyear Destroys Testimony Admitting RV Tire is Defective; Court Rules Deposition is Not Protected)

Harold and Georg-Anne Phillips made their initial complaint in August 2000, when two of the tires on the left rear side of their Monaco Windsor motor home failed, damaging the rear of the vehicle. Goodyear reimbursed the couple for the cost of replacement tires and for repairs to the motor home. But a year and a half later, the Phillips’ were again the victims of a tread separation crash. While traveling on Interstate 10 in Arizona, the motor home's left front tire failed, causing the Phillips to crash into a roadside embankment resulting in serious injuries and property damage.

Consider the trail of sanctions and frustrated judges who have dinged Goodyear for discovery abuses in at least seven cases involving the G159 and other tires.

Now consider the current NHTSA investigation – extremely late though it may be. Despite Goodyear’s Herculean obfuscations, a pretty good record of this crappy motorhome tire – which, by the way, an internet search shows that you can still buy – has accrued, even though much of the raw source material remains out of the public eye.

How are things likely to go?  

A G159 sells for upwards of $350 – so times 40,000 – that’s roughly $14 million in sales to the motorhome market. We know the Schalmos won a $5.6 million verdict against Goodyear. Now we’re down to $8.4 million. How much did Goodyear pay its National Coordinating Council, Basil Musnuff, and all of the lawyers who carried their water in local jurisdictions in 41 civil actions, or running things up the judicial chain? How much did Goodyear pay out in secret settlements? Warranty losses? How much will it ultimately owe for the Judge Silver’s sanctions in the Haeger case? How much will it pay in the forthcoming federal Consent Agreement?

The Safety Record doesn’t know. But we can guess that the numbers long ago wiped any profit Goodyear made from a boneheaded decision made in 1996 that left so much human damage in its wake.


The Safety Record Blog has been writing about motorhome tire failures, the G159 tire and Goodyear’s vicious trial tactics for more than 12 years. If you would like to get caught up, grab a beer, pull up a chair, and take a read:

August 2006 Persistent RV Tire Problems Prompt Fifth Recall; NHTSA Investigation Focuses New Attention on RV Safety

April 2008 Goodyear Destroys Testimony Admitting G159 RV Tire is Defective; Court Rules Deposition is Public

June 2010 Goodyear G159 Tire Failures on RVs Finally Dragged into the Public Eye

Nov. 2012 Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear

June 2013 The Wages of Fraud

Sept. 2013 Haeger High-Stakes Poker

June 2014 Litigating the Goodyear Way

June 2015 Federal Appeals Court Upholds Goodyear Sanctions