GAO Concludes Underride is Underreported, Duh

The General Accounting Office added some weight to the arguments safety advocates have been making for decades about the need for the government to more vigorously tackle the truck underride problem. This week, the GAO released the results of a study to support the consideration of the STOP Underrides Act (S. 666 / H.R. 1511), which would, among other things, require the trucking industry increase its installation of these protective guards. The title, Truck Underride Guards- Improved Data Collection, Inspections, and Research Needed, summed up the report’s central conclusions.

Underride activists Marianne Karth and Lois Durso were less than impressed. These recommendations, they said, can be tossed on a stack of similar suggestions made by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) going back as far as 1992.

“The report basically sums up everything we’ve been telling Congress for the last few years,” says Karth, who took up the cause of requiring trucks to be outfitted with effective underride guards after a May 2013 underride crash that killed two of her nine children, 17-year-old AnnaLeah and 13-year-old Mary. Karth’s vehicle was propelled under the rear of a tractor trailer by another semi trying to switch lanes. “It’s too easy for those who don’t want to be in the position of taking action on the bill to say ‘Oh, we need more data,’ and use it for an excuse for further inaction. Yes, they made some good recommendations, but these are things we already knew and NHTSA already knew, and there are no timelines, no teeth in it, nothing to hold them accountable.”

From January 2018 to March 2019, the GAO reviewed the literature and interviewed a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of the trucking industry, underride guard developers, law enforcement officials, and transportation safety officials from the European Union, Canada, NHTSA, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the NTSB and the IIHS.

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, along with colleagues Richard Burr (R-NC); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and John Thune (R-SD) asked for the assessment to provide context for the STOP Underrides Act, originally introduced in December 2017 and re-introduced last month. The legislation, sponsored by Gillibrand, Rubio and Congressman Stephen Cohen (D-TN) would require the Department of Transportation to issue a final rule to require an upgrade to the rear underride standard and add a requirement for front and side underride guards that meet a performance standard on all trailers, semi-trailers, and single unit trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds. The bill also includes retrofit provisions and maintenance requirements, and compels the DOT to finish its research on front underride guard for commercial trucks.

Much of the report concentrated on the lack of accurate data. The GAO analyzed underride crash data and fatalities from 2008 through 2017, finding in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) figures a range, per year, of 189 to 253 truck underride fatalities, an annual average of about 219 fatalities – less than one percent of total annual death toll and 5.5 percent of all fatalities related to large truck crashes during this time frame. At the same time, the report acknowledged that underride crashes are among those types of crashes that have the most severe consequences for passenger vehicle occupants, because of the intrusion. It also recognized that the fatality figures are a likely under-count, because there is no uniform collection of underride data among the nation’s different crash reporters, especially police departments, which may not have a place on their accident reporting forms to note an underride crash. Researchers at the IIHS and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) told the GAO that even the FARS data missed underride crashes.

The report explored the advances in underride guard technology and systems that make it possible for trucks to reduce their incompatibility with passenger vehicles. It documented the development of crashworthy side underride guards, including one IIHS-crash-tested aftermarket manufacturer of side underride guards, which has sold about 100 sets of side underride guards, at about $2,500 per trailer. Additionally, some trailer manufacturers reported that they were in the process of developing side underride guards.

The GAO also noted that a 2015 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to align the two U.S. underride standards, FMVSS 223 and FMVSS 224 with the 2007 Canadian standard for rear impact guards, has not yet been completed. (See NHTSA Proposes to Affirm Canadian Underride Standard)  This would be the first major upgrade to the rear impact protection standards for trucks in 21 years, and would merely codify what 95 percent of the industry is already doing. In 2014, Marianne and Jerry Karth, and the Truck Safety Coalition petitioned the Secretary of Transportation to raise the minimum level of insurance for truck drivers, for a final rule on electronic logging devices to reduce truck driver fatigue; and to improve the rear underride guard rules. NHTSA granted the Karth petition in July 2014 and a year later, the agency published an ANPRM to consider conspicuity and rear impact guard standards for single unit trucks. In October, NHTSA withdrew the ANPRM, saying that based on its analysis of the costs, it could not justify taking further action.

The GAO also examined the FMCSA regulatory role in ensuring that the rear impact guards currently required were actually safe, by requiring annual inspections. The current rules do not specifically include an inspection of the rear guard, even though trucking industry representatives told  the GAO that the guard may be damaged during normal use, such as  backing into loading docks, but would escape notice unless pulled out for a random road inspection: “Stakeholders we interviewed told us that a trailer could go its entire lifecycle—estimated as typically 10 to 15 years—without ever being selected for a roadside inspection,” the report said. 

GAO made several recommendations. First, it suggested that the NHTSA Administrator improve data collection by recommending that the expert panel of the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria update it to standardize the definition of underride crashes and to include underride as a recommended data field. The Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria, developed in 1998, identifies motor vehicle crash data elements and their definitions that states should consider collecting. The report also recommended that NHTSA educate state and local police departments on the identification and documentation of underride crashes. The GAO recommended that the FMCSA chief revise regulations to require the inspection of rear guards during commercial vehicles’ annual inspections. Finally, it recommended that NHTSA further research on side underride guards to better understand the overall effectiveness and cost associated with these guards and, if warranted, develop standards for their implementation.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association reacted to the report by commenting that the data did not support taking any further action to prevent underrides. Durso says the message is actually the opposite.

“We’ve heard this same litany of excuses for 10, 20 years. We know that underride fatalities are grossly under-counted,” said Durso, who lost her 26-year old daughter Roya Sadigh in a side underride crash in Indiana on November 26, 2004.  “And when you do a cost-benefit analysis based on underreported numbers, the results are skewed.” Nonetheless, she added, “we think 2-300 people dying is enough to do something about it. We know you can’t prevent crashes, but you can prevent the fatality with underride protection and that’s what the main point of the bill. Everything in the GAO report is already addressed in STOP Underrides Act.”

The report follows a crash-test demonstration in Washington D.C. less than three weeks ago hosted by Karth and Durso to demonstrate the efficacy of side underride guards. The tests used Chevy Malibus as the bullet car, striking the side of a tractor trailer at about 30 mph, with and without side underride guards. Industry representatives, and staff members from the Department of Transportation, the Senate commerce committee, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee watched as the side underride guards engaged the Malibu, crushing the front end, but leaving the windshield and roof intact.

Karth says that their experiences as underride activists taught them that the inertia was due to “the total lack of collaboration and communication between industry, government, engineers, and safety advocates,” she said in a long email. “It really bothered me that that situation stood in the way of effective progress in solving the underride problem. Out of that birthed the idea of holding an Underride Roundtable and we proceeded to spearhead organizing two of them. At first I tried to get NHTSA to host it but they said that they could not but would attend and encouraged me to go ahead with plans to do so. The Roundtables were beneficial and brought people together to talk and listen and observe. And it contributed to putting public pressure on the trailer manufacturers to step up to the plate. But it didn’t lead to any action on NHTSA’s part (although they had people present at the events). Because IIHS was gracious to host them, we were able to have crash tests as part of both Roundtables. Who can argue with the evidence before your very eyes? But what I learned was that no one could hold NHTSA accountable. They were not transparent. They did not foster collaborative discussions or actions.”

Karth says that one of the most important lessons of working on the bill was the need to overcome the obstacle created by the lack of transparency and communication. The activists are promoting the creation of a Committee on Underride Protection, with a representative from every stakeholder group participating to foster effective communication and engineering and logistical problem-solving.

“We are at a fork in the road, a decision point,” Karth added. “This GAO report confirms what we already know and yet we are continuing to let people die, when we know we could do something about it. Congress, the ball is in your court.”

NHTSA Says Electronic Tire Registration Feasible

A new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report says requiring tiremakers to electronically identify tires is feasible, but the main technologies to achieve it – Radio Frequency Identification tags or two-dimensional bar-codes – come with plusses and minuses that would need sorting out to achieve a standard format across manufacturers.

The report was mandated by the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, and requested by the Tire Industry Association, which represents tire retailers. In this preliminary study, NHTSA reviewed past research, journal publications, press releases, applicable standards, and government regulations, and met with safety advocates, including Safety Research & Strategies, electronic identification technology companies, tiremakers, tire techs and tire sellers. The agency also conducted its own time/task study to determine how long it takes for someone to hand-record the four TINs on tires mounted on a vehicle.

The report’s conclusions are less startling than a long overdue catch-up on yesterday’s news. Tire manufacturers have been developing RFID technology in tires since 1994. The first tire and wheel tracking standard – B-11 – which included a protocol for RFID, and promulgated by the Automotive Industry Action Group – was unveiled in 2002. In 2006, Michelin was embedding RFID tags into truck tires; Goodyear put them in NASCAR race tires. 

The idea of using electronic tire identification to improve the tire registration and recall system is, similarly, an old idea. In 2007, SRS, long an advocate for tire registration reform, published a white paper titled “Tire Recalls and Tire Safety: The RFID Solution,” pointing out that the tire registration and recall system was broken because it continued to depend on a 50-year-old pencil-and-paper system. The Tire Identification Number (TIN) – the alphanumeric linchpin of the system, used to determine tire age and tire recall population – was not well understood by the average consumer and often inaccessible, if mounted on the inner sidewall. And despite the technological advances, there was still no way to identify and track individual tires once they left the manufacturer.

As part of the study, NHTSA demonstrated to its own satisfaction something SRS has been arguing for years – hand-recording Tire Identification Number takes too long to be practical in the fast-paced retail and service environment. NHTSA testers, recording TINS on 33 vehicles, took anywhere from nearly three minutes to nearly 6 minutes to write down the TINs. The most time was spent on vehicles in which the full TINs (with the date codes) were mounted inwards on all four tires. 

For the study’s purposes, electronic tire identification was defined as an electronically-readable marking or tag within or on the sidewall of a tire that could be captured and transmitted electronically with a hand-held scanning tool. NHTSA found that RFID and 2D barcode technologies – either separately or used in concert – appear to be suitable for implementation and for a standard data format. But each has advantages and disadvantages. 

RFID tags only require the scanner to be within two feet of the tag to be read, so they are readable regardless of which sidewall is facing outward. But current RFID tags don’t have enough memory to store the TIN, so higher-cost tags with additional memory would be necessary. In 2013, Korean tire maker Kumho began including RFID tags in its tires and currently installs them in passenger and light truck tires made at all of its plants except for those made in China, claiming it as an inventory management tool. In 2017, Michelin announced that it would be adding RFID tags to all its commercial truck tires and retreads. A June 2018 opinion piece in Rubber and Plastics News, authored by Jos Uijlenbroek, a founder of Firm RFID Solutions, claimed that the industry was “rapidly adopting” RFID “in a growing number of tire industry processes.”  

According to the report, 2D barcodes are  “two-dimensional optical arrays that represent data using many small, contrasting geometric shapes, such as squares and circles,” used to identify and track items. 2D barcodes had only a 1-foot range and required a clear line-of-sight to be read, but they have greater capacity to present the TIN. They also have a higher up-front machine cost, but are cheaper per-tire than RFID tags. 

Some tiremakers currently etch 2D barcodes into tire sidewalls post-manufacturing, the report said. Officials from 4Jet, a German-based tire laser engraving technology company who met with NHTSA researchers, characterized laser etching as “a mature, well established, and widely used process in the tire industry,” used for serial numbers and TIN date codes.  4Jet reported, for example, that last year, some European vehicle manufacturers were requiring the Data Matrix Codes on both sidewalls of OE tires, and that two major tire manufacturers had “run successful pilot projects and are planning to implement QR codes for use in their truck tires starting in 2018.” 

NHTSA’s conclusions echo those of the National Transportation Safety Board, which identified electronic tire identification as a way to increase tire registration. Its 2015 Special Investigation Report noted that the process can break down at multiple points. For example, registration forms are routed from the manufacturer to wholesalers and importers that might not pass them along to tire retailers. The time it takes to hand-record paper forms can be a strain on large-volume tire dealers. Digital registration, it concluded was quick, easy and would increase the accuracy of the TIN records and tire registration itself: 

Scanning technologies that allow dealers to electronically read barcodes or radio- frequency identification (RFID) tags permanently affixed on a tire offer an alternative that could expedite the registration process. Using this technology, a tire’s TIN could be quickly scanned, recorded, and electronically uploaded to a computerized registration system. Such a system would reduce the time needed for a dealer to register a tire, thereby increasing the probability that tire registration would take place. Use of scanning technologies could also reduce transcription errors. Although resources would be required to create an industry standard for software that takes full advantage of this technology, such an innovation would also simplify the tracking, storage, and distribution of tires, resulting in significant cost savings for both manufacturers and dealers. 

Over the years, the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA)  and the Tire Industry Association (TIA) have competed for the title of “Tire Organization Most Indifferent to Tire Registration and Recalls.” The TIA was the winner for decades, having, in the early 1980s, persuaded Congress to remove tire dealers 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. Then, the USTMA surged ahead with some legislative jujitsu by lobbying for a FAST Act provision that compelled the agency to write regulations requiring independent dealers to maintain customer tire purchase information and electronically transmit those records to tire manufacturers. 

But at last year’s Clemson Tire Conference, an annual industry confab, the old rivals in apathy stood together declaring their allegiance to one another, to the idea that the tire registration system could stand some improving, and to the recognition that any solution would involve the introduction of modern technology. There was no discussion of how this would be achieved.

So, when – and if – the process gets down to the nitty-gritty of costs and implementation, we’ll see how committed the players really are.

With Rosekind Gone, NHTSA Retreats

In November 2016, trade publication Automotive News published a rosy headline on the eve of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind’s departure: NHTSA positioned to continue Rosekind's work after inauguration.

The article went on to repeat Rosekind’s predictions that the agency’s aggressive enforcement stance would continue because “the agency has taken steps to keep its momentum on issues such as autonomous vehicles and cementing a “proactive” safety culture in the new presidential administration.”

[Transportation] Secretary Foxx supported us by allowing us to take an associate administrator and make her the acting deputy administrator. So, when we leave, instead of two-thirds of the leadership leaving, two-thirds will stay,” Rosekind said. “That’s another way we’ll have senior career people making sure that things go on.”

An examination of NHTSA rulemaking, investigations, and civil penalties in the last two years shows that the momentum has died; the agency appears to be doing less than ever before. It’s so pronounced that even Rosekind could see it from his new perch on the industry side, as chief safety innovation officer by Zoox, a driverless car startup. There could be a variety of reasons for this, so we’ll keep the speculation to a minimum, but the trendlines point to a decline in agency enforcement and rulemaking activities. 

Civil Penalties

One of Rosekind’s signature enforcement moves was the use of civil settlements and Special Orders to focus automakers’ attention on timely reporting and ramp up enthusiasm for offering recall remedies. From 2014 to 2015, the agency levied more than $530 million against major automakers, such as Honda, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai-Kia, BMW and GM, for failure to submit Early Warning Reports, failure to make timely defect reports to the agency, and failure to remedy recalled vehicles and components. These were big fines levied against big players—indeed, the entire industry earned a nuclear response for decades of treating the regulator with open disdain. By the end of 2016, the Golden Age of Enforcement was over. From imposing 10 civil penalties in 2015, totaling more than $404 million, NHTSA fined four entities in 2016 – three of which were auto dealers who sold unremedied, recalled vehicles. 

That year, Ride the Ducks International, then-owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, earned the largest fine – $1 million for a slew of violations stemming from a September 2015 crash, in which a stretch duck boat vehicle crashed with a motor coach in Seattle, killing five and injuring 69 others. The vehicle had an unrepaired axle defect covered by a Technical Service Bulletin. The immediate civil penalty was $500,000, with a second $500,000 payment held in abeyance unless the company committed new violation. A couple of years later, a Ride the Ducks boat sank in Table Rock Lake, in the Missouri Ozarks, and killed 17. The victims’ families have sued the new owner, Ripley Entertainment Inc. Did NHTSA investigate to determine if it was time to collect the other $500,000?

In 2017, the civil penalty tally dropped to $130,000, with fines against Michelin Tires, and C&M Trailers of Ennis, Texas. The latter was penalized $110,000 for basically flouting the regulations in any way that it could: skipping EWR reports, manufacturing and certifying vehicles that did not comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards, failing to submit identifying information, failing to comply with VIN requirements, failing to maintain information on first retail purchasers, failing to maintain records of tire purchasers, and launching untimely recalls.  This penalty covered four recalls for jet ski, boat and utility trailers.

In 2018, NHTSA only fined Champion Ford, of Edinboro, Indiana $20,000 for selling unremedied recalled vehicles.

One theory is that Rosekind’s shock and awe campaign permanently cowed the industry into following all the rules, promptly reporting defects and submitting all EWR claims, so no need for the further dispensation of civil penalties. Civil settlements going back to 1999 show that for most of the years prior to 2014, the agency was regularly nabbing auto dealers or small manufacturers and zapping at least one or two major automakers each year. Enforcement seems more closely correlated to the party in power, with Republicans rarely finding many violations worth pursuing, and Democrats exercising the regulator’s authority. For example, during the Bush Administration, in 2007, no fines were imposed or collected. With a Republican president at the helm, NHTSA enforcement has apparently re-entered a hibernation phase.


The number of investigations the agency has opened in the last two years has similarly dropped like a stone. In 1988, the agency opened as many 186 Defect Petitions, Equipment, Recall and Audit Queries, Preliminary Evaluations and Engineering Analyses. As our regular readers know, an EA is not a new, separate investigation; it represents an upgrade of an existing investigation – most typically a PE. In the time period examined, there are about four times more PEs than EAs, because either the manufacturer is persuaded to conduct a recall, or the agency decides it doesn’t have enough to pursue the matter further. The figures below represent any investigation opened in a particular calendar year.

In 2008, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations decreased to 123, and in 2018, the number is down to 34. In the first three months of 2019, the agency has opened a grand total of one investigation. 

Year Number of Investigations
2008 123
2009 94
2010 78
2011 63
2012 66
2013 56
2014 68
2015 65
2016 28
2017 33
2018 34
2019 1

We suspect this could be due to NHTSA turning to a more informal screening process that doesn’t rise to the PE level. These pre-investigation investigations don’t make it into the public record. The Safety Record has long noted NHTSA’s aversion to transparency. 


In 2016, a record 53 million vehicles were recalled – mostly due to the expansion of the Takata airbag recall for over-pressurized bags that could deploy inadvertently, spewing metal shards into occupants. According to the agency’s latest annual recall report, in 2017, there were 822 recalls involving 30.7 million vehicles, just above 2013 levels. In 2018, there were a total of 722 recalls affecting over 29 million vehicles in the United States. The number of NHTSA-influenced recalls specifically for vehicle defects has dropped more dramatically. In 2008, there were 191 NHTSA-influenced recalls, and over the last nine years, that number has fluctuated, but declined, with just 41 NHTSA-influenced recalls for vehicle defects in 2017. That was the lowest number in two decades.   

But, perhaps the quantity of vehicles recalled is less important than the quality of NHTSA’s oversight. In July 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released NHTSA’s Management of Light Passenger Vehicle Recalls Lacks Adequate Processes and Oversight, an audit mandated by the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, in the wake of the Takata recalls. This report concluded:

NHTSA’s process for monitoring for light passenger vehicle recalls lacks documentation and management controls, and does not ensure that remedies are reported completely and in a timely manner. The Agency also does not verify recall completion rates, although it has the authority to do so, and it lacks sufficient management controls to ensure staff assess risk when deciding whether to use oversight tools to improve recall completion rates. Finally, while NHTSA expanded its oversight of the Takata recalls in 2015, by increasing the reporting requirements for manufacturers, it did not follow its own procedures to address low recall completion rates for earlier Takata recalls. Overall, inadequate controls and processes for verifying and collecting manufacturer-reported information have hindered NHTSA’s ability to oversee safety recall implementation.

A chart entitled Monitoring of Recall Scope Reporting was fairly damning – showing that despite significant percentages of initial Part 573 Notices of Defect and Noncompliance with mandated information missing, the Recall Management Division noticed these gaps zero percent of the time – or the sample was too small to say. For example, the RMD did not notice that 46 percent of defect notices contained no description of the manufacturer's basis for its determination of the recall population.

In 2011, GAO auditors also found NHTSA’s recall oversight wanting. This report called out the agency for having no set procedures to determine the adequacy of a recall, being slow to analyze recall data to determine if defects are being repaired, and failing to analyze its data to identify recall completion trend data. Since there are no set targets for recall completion rates, there was little incentive for manufacturers to try to remedy defects for most of the population still in the fleet and in a timely manner. In the short term, NHTSA did not track repair rates to ensure recall effectiveness, the report noted. And, while manufacturers file quarterly reports showing the number of vehicles remedied, and NHTSA occasionally opens Recall Queries (RQ) – investigations to assess recall effectiveness – there was evidence that NHTSA did not appear to employ a systematic process to quickly catch low repair rates. 


Save the agency’s early years, NHTSA has never been a torrent of rulemaking. NHTSA largely likes to wait until Congress mandates a new rule, or the entire industry complies, allowing the codification of a widespread practice. But over the last four years, NHTSA’s number of proposed and final rules has wound down to little.

From 2014 through 2016, the agency moved forward with a number of significant regulatory initiatives, mostly buoyed by 10 Congressionally mandated rulemakings on issues ranging from motorcoach safety to side impact tests for children’s car seats. In those years it published:  

  • An NPRM to improve the rollover structural integrity of certain types of large buses to ensure sufficient survival space for restrained occupants, that seats and overhead luggage racks remain secured and window glazing remained attached to its mounting during and after a rollover crash and that emergency exits remain closed during the rollover crash and operable after the crash.
  • An NPRM to amend the tire identification number to expand the two-symbol codes to identify new tire plants to three, and to standardize the length of the tire identification number to 13 alphanumeric characters for new tires and seven characters for retreaded tires, making it easier to identify a TIN from which a character is missing.
  • An NPRM to adopt side-impact performance requirements for FMVSS No. 213, ‘‘Child restraint systems,’’ to adopt side impact performance requirements for all child restraint systems (CRSs) designed to seat children in a weight range that includes weights up to 40 lbs.
  • An NPRM to upgrade the rear underride protection FMVSSs in crashes into trailers and semitrailers. NHTSA is proposing to adopt requirements of Transport Canada's standard for underride guards, which require rear impact guards to provide sufficient strength and energy absorption to protect occupants of compact and subcompact passenger cars impacting the rear of trailers at 56 kilometers per hour (km/h) (35 miles per hour (mph)). 
  • An NPRM to amend its motorcycle helmet standard, FMVSS No. 218, to add a definition of “motorcycle helmet,” and to modify the existing performance requirements of the standard by adding a set of dimensional and compression requirements. 
  • An NPRM to amend FMVSS No. 225, Child restraint anchorage systems, to improve the ease of use of the lower anchorages of child restraint anchorage systems and the ease of use of tether anchorages.
  • An ANPRM and an NPRM to amend the means of recall notification to owners and purchasers required under the Safety Act to be in an electronic manner, in addition to first class mail.
  • An NPRM to establish a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 217a, “Anti-ejection glazing for bus portals,” to drive the installation of advanced glazing in high-occupancy buses (generally, over-the-road buses (of any weight) and non-over-the-road buses with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 11,793 kilograms (26,000 pounds)). 
  • A Final Rule on the rear visibility standard 
  • A Final Rule establishing a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 136 to require electronic stability control (ESC) systems on truck tractors and certain buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of greater than 11,793 kilograms (26,000 pounds). 
  • A Final Rule establishing a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) to set minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles. 

In 2017, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to establish a new standard, FMVSS 150, to mandate the standardization of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications for new light vehicles. In 2018, NHTSA’s most significant rulemaking was to withdraw a 2010 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to test the impact of brake fluids on the type of rubber the industry now uses. The agency kicked off 2019 by withdrawing two 2012 NPRMs – one that mandates installation of an Event Data Recorder (EDR) that meets NHTSA's current EDR standard in most light vehicles and a second that revises FMVSS 205, Glazing materials, to harmonize it with the corresponding Global Technical Regulation used internationally.

NHTSA’s failure to execute rulemaking has earned it two lawsuits in the last three years. In November 2016, Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety and former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, sued the agency for failing to respond to their petition to establish an automatic braking regulation. The group had petitioned the agency in January to require the feature. And then in March, without responding to the petition in the required 120 day-period, NHTSA announced it had reached an historic agreement with 22 automakers to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard by 2022.

In August 2017, the Center for Auto Safety and sued the DOT for missing a deadline to require automakers to install rear-seat warning technology in all future vehicles. The plaintiffs have argued that the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012, required NHTSA to issue a final rule by October 2015 mandating the rear-seat reminder system. The agency has argued that the Department initiated a rulemaking in 2013, when it asked for public comments on a proposed study on the effectiveness of existing rear seat belt reminder systems. That study began in 2014. The agency further argued that MAP-21 specifically authorized the DOT to extend the initial three-year deadline for issuing a final rule, and the agency has repeatedly announced these extensions. Currently NHTSA estimates it will publish an NPRM in May.

The DOT has often been a Cabinet-level backwater, and NHTSA the ugly step-child of the federal family – even though it regulates a consumer commodity found in virtually every American home. The Trump Administration, in concert with a Republican majority in both houses from 2016 to 2018, generally disdained governance unless it was focused on re-distributing wealth to the top, taking healthcare away from the public, or suppressing brown people. So, we didn’t expect too much from NHTSA during these years. But we’ve never seen NHTSA minimize itself so thoroughly. And the contrast with the activity under Rosekind’s two-year reign is stark.

Underride Activists Campaign with Crash Tests

If you can’t get a member of Congress to the crash test site, bring it to them – at least that was the thinking of underride activists Marianne Karth and Lois Durso, in hosting three tests yesterday to demonstrate the efficacy of underride guards.

The tests, held in a parking lot near Audi Field, two miles from the U.S. Capital in Washington D.C., used Chevy Malibus as the bullet car, striking the side of a tractor trailer at about 30 mph – one test using a trailer equipped with an AngelWing type side underride guard, one with a different side guard design and one without. Industry representatives, and staff members from the Department of Transportation, the Senate commerce committee, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee looked on as the underride guards in the first two tests engaged and crushed the front end of the vehicle, which bore the brunt of the crash force, leaving the windshield and roof untouched.

Video: WUSA9 and MGA

“The results were pretty dramatic,” says Durso, who lost her 26-year old daughter Roya Sadigh in a side underride crash in Indiana on November 26, 2004. “In the crash without the underride guard, the entire top half of the car peeled off from the windshield back. The thing about these crashes is, if you think about what [movie star] Jayne Mansfield’s car looked like, today’s cars look just like that after an underride crash. Cars have gotten safer, but underride crashes are just as deadly as they were in the 1960s.”

(Mansfield died on in a horrific underride crash in Louisiana in June 1969.)

Each year, some 4,000 people die in crashes with large trucks. From 1994-2014 more than 5,000 people died in underride crashes, and the official underride death toll estimate is 200 motorists annually. But these figures are likely under-counts, because police, and other crash data collectors often do not characterize truck-car crashes as such. For example, the crashes involving Karth and Durso’s children were not classified as underride incidents.  

But Durso and Karth know that whatever the number is, it could be lower. They hoped that the demonstration would make the point that there are ready solutions to the hazard, and would push forward legislation that would, in turn, push forward an underride rulemaking that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration undertook in 2015. 

Karth became an activist for truck underride safety after a May 2013 underride crash that killed two of her nine children, 17-year-old Annaleah and 13-year-old Mary. Karth was on a Georgia highway approaching slowed traffic, when a semi trying to switch lanes hit the Karth vehicle in the rear, sending it underneath another tractor trailer. Yesterday, Karth said that she last met with NHTSA in the late fall, but has no idea if or when the agency will advance the rulemaking.

“That’s why we drafted the legislation,” she said after the tests. “We wanted to have something [Congress] could see and hear, something that would stick in their minds, and they wouldn’t be able to sleep until they did something about it.”

The STOP Underrides Act, first introduced in 2017, by Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) would require the Department of Transportation to issue a final rule to require an upgrade to the rear underride standard and add a requirement for front and side underride guards that meet a performance standard on all trailers, semi-trailers, and single unit trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds.  The bill also includes retrofit provisions and maintenance requirements, and compels the DOT to finish its research on front underride guard for commercial trucks.

In 2014, Marianne and Jerry Karth, and the Truck Safety Coalition petitioned the Secretary of Transportation to raise the minimum level of insurance for truck drivers, for a final rule on electronic logging devices to reduce truck driver fatigue; and to improve the rear underride guard rules. NHTSA granted the Karth petition in July 2014 and a year later, the agency published an ANPRM to consider conspicuity and rear impact guard standards for single unit trucks.

In December 2015, the agency initiated a separate Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to align the two U.S. standards, FMVSS 223 and FMVSS 224 with the 2007 Canadian standard for rear impact guards. This was the first major upgrade to the rear impact protection standards for trucks in 21 years, long enough for the new rule to do little to upset the trucking industry: NHTSA estimated that “93 percent of new trailers sold in the U.S. subject to FMVSS Nos. 223 and 224 are already designed to comply with CMVSS No. 223.”

The proposed upgrade would mandate that rear impact guards meet new strength requirements at specified test locations. Specifically, the current quasi-static point load test at the area around the guard’s vertical support location would be replaced by a uniform distributed load test of 350,000 Newtons (N). The performance standards would require the rear impact guard to resist the 350,000 N load without deflecting more than 125 mm, absorb at least 20,000 Joules of energy within 125 mm of guard deflection. The proposal would also require that any portion of the guard and the guard attachments not completely separate from its mounting structure after completing the test.

NHTSA did not lower the guard height from the current 22 inches, nor did it extend the standard’s applicability to currently excluded classes of truck configurations, such as wheels back trailers, pole trailers, logging trailers, low chassis trailers and specialty equipment trucks.

In the three years hence, the NPRM to codify what the trucking industry is already doing has languished. Last October, NHTSA withdrew the ANPRM for better conspicuity and underride guards on single-unit truck, saying that based on its analysis of the costs, it could not justify taking further action. The STOP Underrides Act sits in committee in both chambers. Durso and Karth are currently lobbying the respective committee chairs for their support.

“In 50 years, nothing has happened and people keep dying,” Durso says. “Fourteen years ago, I suffered this unimaginable loss and 14 years later, I’m still at it. We know the technology is available.”

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.”