So What About the Defects?

In 2010, NHTSA levied nearly $50 million in fines against Toyota for flouting the recall regulations in three separate instances. The total represents the largest single fines in the agency’s history – and, (although we haven’t checked) quite possibly more than the agency has ever collected from any and all automakers in 40 years of existence.

This tough stance on recall timeliness is welcome – but does not resolve the larger issues raised by Toyota unintended acceleration – namely how defects are defined in the era of automotive electronics and how such defects are investigated when they are rare, multi-root-cause, and potentially deadly?

The dribble of documents released by the Multi-District Litigation and Congress so far show that UA has been duplicated by Toyota technicians and, contrary to attempts by Toyota advocates and agency investigators to pass off all incidents as driver error, sticky pedals, big shoes and floor mats, there are instances when reliable technical personnel take the vehicle for a test spin and experience UA with no pedal involvement. In fact, we have discovered that Toyota techs were able to duplicate UA in one of very public and widely debated case – but lied to the consumer about it. (We’ll feature that story in a future post.)

The root cause – or causes – of such instances remain obscured, for the moment. There are multiple possibilities. (We suspect that Toyota execs and technical staff in Japan have a much better idea of why these instances occur.) We know that Toyota has bought back vehicles that have experienced a UA event in front of dealership personnel for further testing. Independent testing and vehicle inspections continue to show Toyota’s fault detection software has some serious flaws – flaws that allow unwanted events to occur undetected and without activation of the failsafe features.  There are no regulations that govern the layers of safety need in today’s sophisticated vehicle electronics.  While some manufacturers follow strict multi-tiered safety strategies that catch inevitable (and sometimes rare) occurrences, Toyota appears to be missing some core layers.  How and whether this gets addressed will set the foundation for the future of motor vehicle defect investigations and recalls.

Eventually, this knot will be untangled – but by whom? The National Academy of Sciences is still working on its report. But the panelists aren’t experts in vehicle electronics and have an incredibly broad mandate to review everything from electronic controls design and reliability to environmental factors to cyber-security of automotive electronic control systems.  We don’t expect any revelations there. The Inspector General is looking at NHTSA’s investigatory process, and this work may yield some insight and suggested improvements. The joint NASA-NHTSA effort is scheduled to conclude in 2011.  NHTSA still has an open Recall Query, RQ10-003, to determine if Toyota too narrowly defined the defect in its two UA-related recalls.

And that takes us back to our first question. ODI investigators have traditionally been broken parts guys and gals. What happens if the defect is a line of code or a faulty detection strategy made of digital Swiss cheese? The agency itself may have to broaden the concept of defect to address the evolution of vehicle computer systems and electronics and whether rare events with serious consequences are safety-related defects under their mandate.

To our second question about investigations into a rare, random, and yet potentially deadly defects – the agency isn’t going to get anywhere until it catches up to today’s engine systems. Some of the agency’s public efforts to date, such as the “study” of SUA events using Event Data Recorders, showed how far NHTSA has to go. The agency mischaracterized the data and failed to address the many discrepancies in the readouts. Further, it omitted any context about the questionable reliability of Toyota’s EDRs and about the incidents it included.  The “results” didn’t add much of anything to the discussion other than blaring headlines that alleged NHTSA exonerated Toyota of electronic defects.

Toyota SUA has also exposed more regulatory fissures. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 124 Accelerator Controls has pretty much lost its relevance. Its purpose is: “to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from engine overspeed caused by malfunctions in the accelerator control system.” In 2005, NHTSA proposed amending it. But, the industry sought to rescind the standard, arguing that market forces and litigation pressure were sufficient to assure fail-safe performance without a safety standard. The agency terminated the rulemaking.

And, while these broad questions beg for answers, automakers are experimenting with even more sophisticated and integrated electronics.