NAS Report on Vehicle Electronics and UA: More Weak Tea

The National Academies of Science released today its long-awaited review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations, its regulatory policies and the agency’s next steps in dealing with electronic defects. The 16-member panel of volunteers, from a multitude of related disciplines, met 15 times over about 18 months, and were, at least, in attendance for presentations from 60 contributors.

The panel’s most significant critique was an acknowledgement that NHTSA is ill-equipped to deal with the new age of vehicle electronics:

“For NHTSA to engage in comprehensive regulatory oversight of manufacturer assurance plans and processes, as occurs in the aviation sector, would represent a fundamental change in the agency’s regulatory approach that would require substantial justification and resources (see Finding 4.6). The introduction of increasingly autonomous vehicles, as envisioned in some concepts of the electronics-intensive automobile, might one day cause the agency to consider taking a more hands-on regulatory approach with elements similar to those found in the aviation sector. At the moment, such a profound change in the way NHTSA regulates automotive safety does not appear to be a near-term prospect.”

Conclusions like these pepper the NAS report. Throughout The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics; Insights from Unintended Acceleration, the panel tries to have it both ways: to lay claim to a scientific process, without employing any actual science, to maintain that it was not second-guessing NHTSA’s investigations, but concluding that the agency was justified in closing them; to say that the Audi Sudden Unintended Acceleration controversy isn’t comparable to the Toyota debate because automotive technology has changed so drastically, and yet lean heavily on the 1989 NHTSA-commissioned report, An Examination of Sudden  Acceleration.

Unfortunately, these equivocations do nothing to enhance our understanding of or to resolve the problem of Toyota unintended acceleration. In fact, these events continue to occur. Toyota drivers, who have not been put off by the NHTSA and Toyota’s steady drumbeat of floor mats and driver error, are still reporting their incidents to the agency’s consumer complaint database. (We will be releasing the 2011 numbers shortly, along with interviews from drivers.)

Consider the deaths of Perlita and Eugene Macala on January 12, in Las Vegas, after their 2002 Toyota Camry “sped through a red light” on an I-215 off-ramp and “slammed into a concrete wall,” according to news accounts. A witness, Jodee Talley, who was behind the Macalas on the freeway said: “They were traveling at just a little bit of a higher rate of speed than me in the beginning – until they started braking. The reverse lights were flashing and then it just darted as if they had floored the vehicle…It was hard to understand how the car went from slowing down to just in a flash slamming against the wall head on at such a high rate of speed,” Talley said. “My first thought [was] that it was somebody just driving erratically, but it just didn’t make sense once they actually collided with the wall.”

Floor mats? A confused driver? The 2002 Camry has been among the most troubled vehicles and is outside of any recall.  Was Mrs. Macala braking, as the witness and the brake lights suggest? The NAS panel appeared unable to understand the concept of unintended acceleration occurring while the driver is braking:

“The NASA investigators further confirmed NHTSA’s conclusion that the ETC could not disable the brakes so as to cause loss of braking capacity, as often reported by drivers experiencing unintended acceleration commencing in a vehicle that had been stopped or moving slowly,” the report states.

There are several reasons why braking could be ineffective in a UA event, ranging from the depletion of the vehicle’s vacuum power-assist braking system during a long-duration high-speed event to insufficient space to bring the vehicle under control before it crashes in a low-speed parking incident. While mechanical and electro-mechanical systems are separate, they are connected by the vehicle’s electronic architecture and they are constantly interacting. The Electronic Control Module, the vehicle’s central computer, is orchestrating many vehicle tasks and the ECM can and does, at times, misinterpret driver commands and sensor signals – including the command to brake. For example, in May 2010, GM recalled 2005-2006 Corvettes with tilt and telescoping steering wheels because the steering wheel angle sensor could become corrupted, causing one side of the vehicle’s brakes to actuate which can put the car into a spin.

The NAS similarly misunderstands the real world of Event Data Recorders (EDRs or “black boxes).  The automotive version of a device well-known in avionics is far from the hardened devices found in today’s aircraft.  Any seasoned crash investigator can recount inconsistent readouts from EDRs, which can only supplement other evidence.  NAS suggests that advanced and mandated EDRs could stand in as the impartial witness to the behavior of the driver and the vehicle in a crash.

The panel gives short shrift to the most significant physical evidence of a root cause of Toyota Unintended Acceleration discovered to date: tin whiskers in the accelerator pedal position sensor. Tin whiskers are a well-known cause of electronic malfunction and surely worth further study in the age of increasing automotive electronics.

There are many other indications throughout the report that NAS got it exactly backwards. For example, the NAS panel did not recommend that NHTSA upgrade Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 124 Accelerator Controls, written in 1972. Rather, it accepted NHTSA’s explanation that the current regulation was sufficiently technology-neutral and its example of a similar regulatory scenario, FMVSS 114:

“Because the FMVSSs are intended to be technology neutral, the changeover from mechanical to electronics systems in recent years has not necessitated substantial regulatory revisions. For example, NHTSA officials informed the committee that the introduction of keyless ignition systems occurred within the context of the existing FMVSS 114. The agency has interpreted the standard’s requirements governing the use of a “key’’ as encompassing both a traditional physical key and codes that are electronically transmitted by a fob or entered by the driver using a keypad inside the vehicle.”

As it happens, for years automakers were forced to seek interpretations from agency counsel on how FMVSS 114 applied to the new systems, because it wasn’t clear. Further, the agency decided to address this confusion in 2006 by upgrading the 114 to encompass electronic keys. Just last month, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to significantly re-write the standard, because keyless ignition systems had introduced new safety hazard – carbon monoxide poisoning – unanticipated by the old regulation based on old technology. (See Stupid Tricks with Smart Keys)

FMVSS 114 provides an excellent illustration of why the agency should upgrade FMVSS 124.

The NAS panel points out “the importance of considering the totality of the evidence in investigations of reports of unsafe vehicle behaviors.” And there’s the problem right there. The cherry-picking of the data began with very first Camry investigation in 2004 and continues today. This phenomenon was captured best by Toyota’s Chris Santucci.

In May 2009, Santucci sent an e-mail to colleague about his progress in the negotiations with the agency to close DP09-001. A Lexus owner who had experienced a high-speed UA event in his Lexus ES350 had requested that the agency specifically investigate events that implicated the vehicle’s electronic throttle control, instead of floor mats, as a root cause.  As characterized by Santucci, NHTSA was looking for the way out:

“I have discussed our rebuttal with them, and they are welcoming of such a letter, They are struggling with sending an IR letter, because they shouldn’t ask us about floormat issues because the petitioner contends that NHTSA did not investigate throttle issues other than floor mat-related. So they should ask us for non-floor mat related reports, right? But they are concerned that if they ask for these other reports, they will have many reports that just cannot be explained, and since they do not think that they can explain them, they don’t really want them. Does that make sense? I think it is good news for Toyota.

No one would say that the controversy has been “good” for Toyota. Yet, the automaker’s ability to use an alphabet soup of government agencies to quash the truth about the problems with its vehicle electronics, to effectively hide from public view what it knows about the causes of those problems, to avoid fixing them or compensating customers who are saddled with them is an impressive achievement.