Keeping Automakers’ Sales Truly Safe: The Edmund’s Conference

SRS was in attendance, Tuesday, as the cyber sales team at Edmund’s ushered in a “new chapter in the conversation between government, the auto industry, safety advocates, academics and consumers, marked by thoughtful, data-driven contributions from all.”

It was written amid cocktails and at more sobering and highly-scripted venues inside the Newseum, the 250,000 square-foot monument to journalism in Washington DC.  If Edmund’s is going to author the new chapter on safety, consumers beware.

In the conference brochure, Edmund’s CEO Jeremy Anwyl tells participants that the Toyota Unintended Acceleration crisis was the impetus for the meeting: “ watched as a shallow conversation made international headlines. We felt uneasy about the lack of real discussion taking place among smart people with the power to change laws, introduce technology and educate drivers.”

We have felt that same unease. Alas, the Truly Safe conference did nothing to dispel the queasiness. In fact, the event made the hair at the back of our necks prickle with alarm – particularly the portion devoted to understanding the facts and what are purported to be the facts about Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Suggestions that electronics may have played a role were quickly dismissed. Instead, Anwyl reiterated his belief that driver error was the predominant cause. Neither he nor the conference’s roster of believers discussed or introduced any scientific data. For example, the “smart people” at the conference ignored the data which show that the complaint rates for the Camry, Tacoma, and Lexus ES skyrocketed in the same year those vehicles switched from mechanical to electronic throttles – before, after, and during the intense media coverage.  How can this be explained? Anwyl singled out this specific question for scorn.

Also absent was any discussion of the actual NASA findings – not Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s reductio ad absurdum claim that the reports exonerated Toyota’s electronics.  There was no science, no evidence, no statistical analyses, no discussion of the details or nuances of engine management system design, validation, and vehicle mitigation testing. In other words, Edmunds presided over yet another shallow conversation – at, no doubt, premium prices. (Who did foot the bill for that conference?)

Driver error was the theme of the day. Indeed, driver behavior is a wild card in auto safety. But allow us a moment to adjust our tin-foil hats and get serious.

The two biggest auto safety crises in the last decade were Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the Ford/Firestone tire tread separation rollovers.  Both grew to mammoth proportions as public safety issues in an environment of antiquated and non-existent safety standards. They serve as a roadmap for the auto safety crises that inevitably erupt when there are no relevant safety standards.

You may recall that the most popular and best-selling SUV, the Ford Explorer, equipped with their original equipment Firestone tires, was prone to rollovers after tread separations, killing its occupants. The Firestone Radial ATX and Wilderness radial tires met all of the federal regulations at the time. Unfortunately, the standards belonged to another era of tire technology, when bias-plies were the norm. As for the controls on the Explorer side of the equation, well, there were no federal standards for occupant protection in rollovers. There was no minimum stability standard for Sport Utility Vehicles, a new breed of station wagon with a high-center of gravity based on a truck platform.  Industry fought off any regulations, even as the rollover death tolls in light trucks rose to epidemic levels.  (Rollovers accounted for 8 percent of light vehicle crashes, but accounted for 31 percent of all occupant fatalities.[1])

A series of gruesome high-profile crashes and some pointed news stories about the safety of Ford Explorers and Firestone tires compelled NHTSA to begin investigating. After Ford’s secret overseas tire recalls came to light, the automaker launched a series of campaigns to replace the Firestone tires. Ford insisted that the tires bore all the blame. NHTSA insisted that there were no reasons to examine the role of America’s then-best selling SUV in these tire-related fatal crashes. But the problem was more complex than NHTSA or Ford cared to admit. After all the tires were replaced, Explorer tire-related rollover deaths and injuries did not abate. In fact, independent analyses of crash data shows that the recalls and replacement campaigns by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone did not achieve long-term effectiveness in eliminating tire-related deaths in the Ford Explorer fleet. (  If the tires were the only problem, what explains the post-recall death toll?

A decade later, the lack of a regulatory framework laid the foundation for an eerily similar scenario. Complaints of unintended acceleration dogged Toyota for six years, but NHTSA’s defect investigators can find nothing wrong. Toyota vehicles meet the federal accelerator controls standard, FMVSS 124 – only it was penned in 1972 when throttles still had cables. In the 1990s, many safety-critical mechanical automobile control systems moved to electronics systems, which rely on sophisticated sensors, computer processors and software, interpret the demands to deliver outputs needed in a driving environment. The agency attempted to upgrade the standard, but again, industry fought off any changes. In a federal rulemaking, NHTSA summarized their arguments:  “In general, the comments of vehicle and engine manufacturers did not address the specific questions in the notice. Instead, they voiced a preference for rescinding the standard altogether, suggesting that market forces and litigation pressure are sufficient to assure fail-safe performance without a Federal motor vehicle safety standard.”[2]

Then, a high-profile crash kills California Highway Patrolman and his family. The media questions the safety of Toyota’s electronics in some of the most popular vehicles produced by the number-one automaker in the world.  NHTSA investigates and finds causes no more complicated than errant floor mats, sticky pedals and driver error. And after all the floor mats and pedals are replaced, problems continue.  Two occupants died in a November 2010 unintended acceleration crash in Utah, after the two surviving witnesses in the vehicle report that the driver tried repeatedly to disengage the cruise control and apply the brake as he exited a highway off ramp. There was no floor mat interference.  This is but one of many incidents that can’t be adequately explained by NHTSA or Toyota under their pet theories.

The lack of safety requirements set the stage for both the Ford/Firestone and Toyota UA crises. Rulemaking is the process by which NHTSA develops its institutional understanding of vehicle technology and functional outcomes. Without that critical step, automakers are left to their own devices; the agency is left behind the technological curve. And when bad design and manufacturing processes kill and injure, and NHTSA is called upon to ferret out a defect, it is ill-prepared to do so. The more widespread the defect and more expensive the remedy, the more likely it is that the agency will settle for a fix it thinks it can get – whether it solves the full problem or not.

These crises involved popular, high-volume models made by companies who actively opposed the regulatory structure that could have prevented the damage to their reputations and bottom lines and to their customers. In both cases, solutions are complex and expensive. How do you prevent or minimize the loss of control crashes that follow tread separations on an Explorer?  How do you prevent unwanted events that find their way through an electronic architecture lacking robust failsafe design?  Both are economically prohibitive for the wealthiest corporations.  What is more tenable?  Put the money into fighting a small defects office in a government agency ill-equipped to independently understand the issues and build your campaign around fighting the litigation and building good public relations.

Unfortunately, high-drama defects siphon NHTSA’s resources from planned injury reduction priorities.  Absent regulation and investigators with detailed understanding of current technology, the crises will continue to occur, starting the cycle anew.

If Edmund’s had any desire to start a real conversation about auto safety, first it would educate itself about regulatory history, automotive design and defect investigation, instead of announcing silly contests. If Edmund’s wanted to host a serious discussion about improving auto safety, its CEO would actually entertain opposing points of view, instead of shutting them down with Kennedy assassination conspiracy zingers. If Edmund’s wants data-driven discussion then how about actually discussing some data?

It doesn’t. Edmund’s wants to sell cars. And, as any good salesman knows, you gotta make the customer think you care.

[1] Initiatives to Address the Mitigation of Vehicle Rollover; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; June 2003

[2] Docket 2002-12845-001; Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Accelerator Control Systems; 67 FR 48117; July 23, 2002