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 KidsAndCars.org 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.

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.


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.

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.”



Is Goodyear Headed for NHTSA Sanctions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of the G159

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, Goodyear blamed consumers:

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

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

Defending the G159

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are things likely to go?  

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

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


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

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

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

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

Nov. 2012 Pattern of Fraud Brings Down Goodyear

June 2013 The Wages of Fraud

Sept. 2013 Haeger High-Stakes Poker

June 2014 Litigating the Goodyear Way

June 2015 Federal Appeals Court Upholds Goodyear Sanctions




Ford Asks for Takata Recall Pass

On July 10, 2017, Takata recalled PSDI-5 driver air bag inflators containing phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate (PSAN) as a generant and calcium sulfate as a desiccant, which were used in vehicles sold in the United States as original equipment in frontal driver airbag modules. Recall 17E034 affected 2.7 million Ford, Mazda and Nissan vehicles produced between 2005 and 2012.

Takata’s accompanying chronology in its Part 573 Notice of Defect and Noncompliance describes a field recovery program conducted with Nissan and Ford at NHTSA’s request between March 2016 and June 2017, to gather inflators and subject them to a variety of tests. These included live dissections, chemical and dimensional propellant analysis and ballistic testing. Takata reported to the agency that the field-returned inflators had zero ruptures in ballistic test deployments, but that “some within the population analyzed show a pattern of propellant density reduction over time that is understood to predict a future risk of inflator rupture.” It also allowed that “inflator design and vehicle environment differences between the Nissan and Ford inflators/vehicles may influence their aging characteristics.” (Emphasis added.)

Nonetheless, Takata determined, “out of an abundance of caution,” to recall its first-generation PSDI-5 PSAN driver air bag inflators containing calcium sulfate. In notifying NHTSA of a defect and announcing a recall, Takata acknowledged that these inflators represent an unacceptable risk.

Nissan responded by recovering 895 inflators from the field for testing, and acquiescing to the recall without complaint. Ford responded by collecting only 400 inflators from the field, and filing a petition asking NHTSA to declare the affected Takata inflators in its vehicles to be an inconsequential risk to safety. At the same time, Ford requested that NHTSA delay a decision on its petition until the automaker can conduct more testing. Got it? Ford asked NHTSA to declare the inflators in its vehicles safe, but not until Ford does more testing to prove it.

Safety Research & Strategies has submitted comments objecting to Ford’s petition and urging NHTSA to reject it. You can read them here. [Docket No. NHTSA–2017–0093; Notice 1]

Ford argued that 360 live dissections of Ford vehicle inflators demonstrated “consistent inflator output performance — specifically, measurements of ignition tablet discoloration, generate density, and moisture content of certain inflator constituents did not indicate a reduction-in-density trend.”  Ford also maintained that the inflators in its 2006-2007 Ford Rangers were in no danger of failing because it had taken unique steps to prevent  “potential” exposure to moisture: “the inflators contain only two, foil-wrapped auto-ignition tablets (instead of three that are not foil-wrapped), contain divider disk foil tape, and utilize certain EPDM generate cushion material (instead of ceramic) that “reduces generate movement over time, maintains generate integrity, and leads to consistent and predictable burn rates.”

There are so many things wrong with this ask and Ford’s argument, it’s hard to know where to begin, so we’ll start here: First, It has already been established that, with or without drying agents, PSAN is too volatile of a generant – period. PSAN must be used with extraordinary precision and care, or it is likely to over-pressurize, especially when exposed to temperature cycling and moisture. And we know from everything that has been publicly revealed so far that Takata had pretty bad manufacturing processes and lax quality control.

PSAN is the underlying root cause of the ruptures. Takata has affirmed this in a variety of patents filed over two decades. A study, conducted at the behest of Takata and Honda by researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s High Pressure Combustion Laboratory also showed, over Takata’s protests, that PSAN is susceptible to dynamic burning. That means that when the propellant is exposed to sudden pressure increases, it may burn at a much faster rate and at higher temperatures than expected, leading to over-pressurization.

Second, calcium sulfate, used extensively as a commercial desiccant in laboratory use, does not provide any guarantees that the inflator won’t eventually rupture. Manufacturers like it because it’s cheap, stable non-toxic and non-corrosive, but it only adsorbs 10 percent of its weight in water vapor.

Third, we suppose that it’s fine and dandy to reduce the ingress of moisture that can create porosity in the wafers of generant. If that was the only mechanism of failure, Ford might have made a decent argument. Only, it seems that Ford is putting as much effort into keeping up with the science of inflator ruptures as it has been in recovering inflators from the field. Technical experts that served as consultants to NHTSA and Takata agreed moisture intrusion is of lesser importance in inflator ruptures than temperature cycling.

For example, the Exponent report, Investigation of Takata Inflator Ruptures, emphasizes the role of thermal cycling in failure scenarios: “However, even in hot and dry environments like Arizona, the large daily temperature cycles in the absence of significant moisture ingress can also cause propellant degradation over a prolonged period. High moisture content alone in the absence of temperature cycling will not increase degradation.”

NHTSA consultant Fraunhofer ICT and Takata also acknowledged that variances among vehicle types are determinants in whether or how significantly an airbag inflator will deteriorate due to temperature cycling, stating:

“One of the key observations in the analysis of the field return data is that there exists a strong dependence on outcome based on the vehicle in which the inflator was installed. Limited vehicles studies conducted by Takata show variation in inflator surface temperatures between different vehicle types and models, given identical environmental exposure conditions. This temperature variation appears to have some correlation with different field performance of those models, as shown in Figure 19 below. This is not to say that the vehicle is the cause of the issue- only that the vehicle type may influence the rate that the inflator degrades.”

Finally, the death of Joel Knight is a warning about the price of recall delays.

On December 22, 2015, Knight, 52, of Kershaw County South Carolina, was fatally injured in an otherwise survivable and moderate crash when a defective airbag ruptured in his 2006 Ford Ranger.  Knight’s vehicle struck a cow that wandered into the road; the airbag inflator exploded during deployment, causing a piece of metal shrapnel to pierce his neck and spine.

Knight’s death was unwarranted and preventable – this defective Takata airbag inflator type, the Smokeless Driver Inflator or SDI, had already been recalled in 2014 in at least 61 other countries by Honda and Toyota. Those recalls were initiated following ruptures that took the life of at least one other driver – a pregnant woman in Malaysia.  

From June 2014 to May 2015, however, Ford dithered – and never actually recalled the SDI inflators in all of its vehicles.

The automaker issued its first Takata-related campaign as a voluntary field service action for a select group of vehicles in certain model years, which included Ford Rangers.  After July 2014, when a rupture caused by a failed SDI inflator (the very same used in Knight’s 2006 Ranger) killed a pregnant woman in Malaysia, NHTSA requested that Ford replace driver side airbag inflators in Ranger vehicles. Ford launched another regional field service campaign in November 2014 to replace driver side frontal air bag inflators in the 2004-2005 Ford Ranger vehicles.  The action was still limited to Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, despite other manufacturers expanding the affected regions, and still, inexplicably, did not include the 2006 Ranger.

In May 2015, Ford finally converted its regional recall for passenger inflators into a nationwide recall after Takata issued a recall requesting such an action, but never converted its recall of SDI inflators from the limited regional recall into a nationwide recall, nor did it recall the 2006 Ranger with the same SDI.

Knight’s death was partly the impetus for a Takata airbag inflator recall of about 5 million vehicles, which would have included the 2006 Ford Ranger. The family of Joel Knight has publicly stated his death would have been prevented if Ford had launched a timely recall. 

We agree.

As other manufacturers have acknowledged to their customers the dangers of defective Takata airbag inflators and have begun to move more actively to recall these components, Ford continues to demonstrate its apathy. It continues to install the same non-desiccated Takata inflators that are the subject of the massive recalls in what NHTSA has dubbed” like-for-like” inflators – which very few other manufacturers are using. In the three years since NHTSA first ordered manufacturers to treat this defect as an urgent public safety issue, almost all manufacturers have procured either desiccated inflators or inflators from other suppliers. Ford sought extensions, telling the Agency that three years was not enough for it to find a safe alternative in sufficient numbers to meet the demand. Owners of these vehicles will have to go into the shop again in early 2020 for another replacement, which could lead to reduced completion rates because owners are frustrated or feel the interim remedy is safe enough.  

Astoundingly, Ford is still telling its customers that the inflators are safe, while Honda has (finally) mounted a full-court press to capture defective inflators – including a door-to-door effort to recovery a particularly dangerous subset of airbags. In contrast, Ford’s webpage entitled, “Frequently Asked Questions regarding Takata Airbag Inflator Recalls,” puts out this bull in response to a query about whether vehicles with recalled Takata airbags are safe to drive:

"Based on currently available technical data, Ford Motor Company understands that the vehicles involved in the recent Takata recall are safe to drive while you are waiting for replacement parts. You should have the repair completed as soon as possible after you are notified that parts are available.”

Ford’s got nerve – we’ll give them that. But one thing they shouldn’t be given is permission to forego the recall. NHTSA should not let Ford play Rupture Roulette with its customers.

NHTSA, Ford and CO Poisoning: Sickening

If your local police department has a fleet of Ford Explorer Interceptors, it’s probably trying to determine if the vehicle – an Explorer modified for law enforcement use – is sickening its officers during long periods of idling or hard acceleration. But if you are the civilian owner of one of these vehicles, keep a close eye on the noises Ford or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes about a recall.     

In July 2016, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened a probe into reports of occupants smelling exhaust odors in the occupant compartments of 2011-2015 Explorers. “Complainants expressed concerns about exposure to carbon monoxide.” At the time, the agency had tallied 154 complaints. What happened in the Preliminary Evaluation was – up until two weeks ago – anyone’s guess, because other than the Opening Resume and an Information Request letter to Ford demanding a response by August 24, 2016, nothing else was ever added to the public file.

In the space of a year, the complaints piled up. Ford reported fielding 2,051, while 791 drivers complained to NHTSA’s Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire hotline. Some of those complaints were getting mad press because they came from police departments from Auburn, Mass. to Austin, Texas. Ford owns a large share of the law enforcement vehicle market. Introduced to the fleet in 2012, the Interceptor accounted for 60 percent of Ford police vehicle sales in 2013 – more than 14,000 police SUVs. By 2015, Ford was bragging in a press release that the Interceptor “quickly became America's best-selling police vehicle – which has helped Ford capture 61 percent market share through June 2015.”

Inconveniently for public safety, and Ford’s bottom line and brand ID as the go-to automaker for law enforcement, at least five officers lost consciousness, were hospitalized for CO exposure or crashed their SUVs after huffing the cabin air of their Interceptors.  For example, in September 2015, a Newport Beach, California officer “passed out while driving his Interceptor,” swerving “across two lanes of oncoming traffic, nearly hitting another car head on, and crashed into a tree at 55 mph,” according to CNN. After an Auburn, Massachusetts officer rear-ended another vehicle in late July, he and the vehicle tested positive for carbon monoxide.  

As stories of police departments parking their Interceptors have proliferated, Ford has been dispatching investigative teams to municipalities to assess the damage and assure its customers whose vehicles are paid for by the taxpayers that it will “cover the costs in every Police Interceptor with this issue, no matter what its age, mileage or post-purchase modifications,” according to news reports. 

If you paid for an Explorer directly from your own pocket, Ford seems a lot less interested in solving your problem – although there have been civilian Explorer buy-backs, and several apparently unsuccessful Technical Service Bulletins. Nonetheless, the company has been very careful to build what is known in Ford internal circles as the “defendable fence,” a way to limit the defect to a discreet population of vehicles, protecting the company from a much bigger recall that could include more than a million vehicles. This term surfaced in a 1995 memo on ignition switch fires in 28 million 1983 to 1995 light trucks and passenger cars with the same design. Ford has used this strategy to limit recalls of Ford F-150 cruise control deactivation switch fires, thick film ignition and stuck throttles.

The Explorer’s Chief Engineer Bill Gubing has been out there pushing the idea that the carbon monoxide is entering the occupant compartment via unsealed spaces and wiring holes drilled in the course of implementing after-market features specific to police work, such as emergency lights and radios. Other Ford Explorer owners need not be concerned Gubing reportedly said:

From a carbon monoxide perspective, the police duty cycle is very different than what a retail customer drives…It creates more combustion gas at the back of the vehicle because the engine’s working harder and faster. At the same time, there are modifications done to the back of the vehicle that certainly provide leak paths when those modifications are not done properly. We don’t see the retail customers driving like that. We don’t see retail customers with those modifications.

So that’s how carbon monoxide is getting into police Explorers. How is it getting into many, many, many more Explorers owned by regular folk? According to several Technical Service Bulletins Ford issued in 2012, 2014 and 2016, this problem surfaces when “the auxiliary climate control system is on,” and “may be worsened when the climate control system is in recirculate mode and the vehicle is heavily accelerated for an extended period.” The fixes concerned replacing vents, checking drain valves and reprogramming the heating ventilation air conditioning module to the latest calibration. 

In late July, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis. By then the agency had collected 791 complaints and identified 41 injuries such as headaches, nausea and light-headedness in 25 incidents. Only 11 complaints involved police Interceptors. 

NHTSA’s first take on the Interceptor problem is cracks in the exhaust manifold, not deliberate, aftermarket perforations. Its tests at the Vehicle Research and Test Center (VRTC) in East Liberty, Ohio, along with field inspections, has led it to theorize that “CO levels may be elevated in certain driving scenarios, although the significance and effect of those levels remains under evaluation as part of the EA.” But it has also suggested that NHTSA may well respect Ford’s fence: “To date, no substantive data or actual evidence (such as a carboxyhemoglobin measurement) has been obtained supporting a claim that any of the alleged injury or crash allegations were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, the alleged hazard.” 

The consumer-reported Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaires certainly support the notion that CO levels can become elevated during acceleration. Civilians, who also need to accelerate their vehicles – even if not engaging in a high-speed chase – have been reporting that the fumes engulf them when they hit the gas hard.

An owner from Strabane, Pennsylvania told NHTSA in June 2016:

Several times when driving two of my children ages 2 and 10 complained of a bad smell coming from the third row seating. They both became strangely ill, but only my 2 year old began vomiting. My 10 year old complained of being light headed during several long trips. I noticed on many occasions that during high acceleration anyone that sits in the third row complains of stomach aches after a lengthy time in the vehicle. I chalked it up to car sickness, but remembered this only became relevant when leasing this ford. Please help us. I have three kids and no other vehicle.

An Explorer owner in Canyon County, California told NHTSA in February 2017:

While driving the car on the freeway and under acceleration there is a horrible exhaust smell that makes my kids and myself nauseous. It also gives me constant headaches. I didn't realize what was happening until my husband got in the car for the first time and noticed the exhaust smell.

An owner from Brandon, Missouri reported in January 2017:

The smell is very harsh smells like burnt hair or sulfur. On long trips my wife has had severe headaches. This Explorer is the vehicle my wife and kids (ages 14, 5, & 2) use to get to work and school; I need to get this vehicle repaired or replaced. Please help!!!

From the owner of a 2015 Explorer in Juno Beach, Florida:

After heavy acceleration, the cabin has a strong foul sulfur odor that is unbearable. We have had it in to a Ford dealership to have both TSBs performed – the second took 5 days! And it still has not changed. Disgusting smell. This happens when we accelerate as on to the highway or to pass in challenging situations. I only have to press the gas pedal about half way down for 4-5 seconds and the smell is overwhelming. Activating the turbo chargers for any length of time brings this smell into the cabin. Then all of the windows have to go down to clear the smell. My mother can't take this anymore and my wife complains of headaches. This has been an ongoing for a year and a half!

Despite this defect’s high profile, the public information has only dribbled out of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation. Neither Ford’s response to the Preliminary Evaluations or any work the agency has done has been shared with the public. As it opened the Engineering Analysis, ODI summarized parts of Ford’s response and testing it was doing out in East Liberty. The files themselves are not accessible, despite the agency’s regular transparency proclamations. 

For example, in 2012, the agency requested a $10,611,000 appropriation for Safety Defects Investigation activities, $782,000 above the FY 2010 funding level, to, among other things, “ensure that all public information related to investigations, recalls, and complaints is current.” In June 2015, NHTSA released a Workforce Assessment report in which one of its purported goals for ODI was: “Assure that information relating to investigations and recalls is readily available to the public.” On its website, NHTSA states that “NHTSA is committed to providing the most accurate and complete information available to its customers, the American traveling public, in a helpful and courteous fashion.”

Unfortunately, help and courtesy does not come cheap. In June, Safety Research & Strategies submitted a Freedom of Information Request for the non-confidential documents in the investigative file, and the agency told us that they’d be happy to oblige for about $780 dollars. 

First, these materials shouldn’t require a FOIA request – at least according to NHTSA. By law, all federal agencies are required to publish records that because of “the nature of their subject matter, the agency  determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records; or that have been requested 3 or more times.” In addition, agencies are required to publish a general index of those frequently-requested records. NHTSA’s Electronic Reading Room webpage listing those categories of records that “are available without the need for a FOIA request:” includes such “frequently requested records and information” such as downloads of defect investigation records. 

We’ve argued that these documents should be released at no charge because the information is squarely in the public interest, and because NHTSA by custom and by regulation is supposed to put non-confidential investigative material in the public files. We’ve requested that the fee be waived. Stay tuned.

Quality Control Systems Corp. Sues DOT for Tesla Data

Quality Control Systems (QCS) Corp. has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in pursuit of Tesla airbag deployments data that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has withheld from public view.

R. A. Whitfield, the company’s director, said that the company wanted to test the validity of claim made by NHTSA that airbag deployments in Tesla vehicles dropped by almost 40 percent after the installation of a component of the Tesla’s Autopilot system, Autosteer. NHTSA asserted this decrease in a report accompanying the Closing Resume of Preliminary Evaluation 16-007. The investigation was prompted by the May 2016 death of Joshua Brown, a Tesla enthusiast who was driving his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode, when it crashed into an 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck that was turning left in front of it on US 27A, west of Williston, Florida. The report stated:

“ODI analyzed mileage and airbag deployment data supplied by Tesla for all MY2014 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 and after Autopilot installation. 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.”

Whitfield says he wants to know if the methodology NHTSA used is scientifically valid and whether their results can be replicated. Other questions include whether the reduction in crash rates is actually due to Autosteer itself and whether the claimed crash reductions could be expected to continue over a longer period of time.

“The surprising improvement in crash safety that NHTSA associates with Autosteer would be very welcomed if the dramatic safety claims prove to be scientifically sound. But it is concerning that the crash reductions are associated with the installation of Autosteer, rather than the actual use of Autosteer,” Whitfield says. “And NHTSA’s analysis is just as astonishing for the fact that it lacks the most basic, information necessary for reaching well-founded conclusions about the claimed crash rate reductions. It is very remarkable that the published description of the Agency’s findings do not meet long-established scientific standards that would allow for an assessment of statistical confidence intervals or of statistical significance. Even the numerators and the denominators of the calculated crash rates are AWOL.”

NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened the Tesla probe on June 28, 2016, focusing on whether the Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) or Autopilot systems had functioned as designed, increasing the risk of a crash. It closed six months later with no defect finding, saying that the system performed as designed, and blaming Brown for the crash. Tesla’s four responses submitted to the public investigation file were almost wholly redacted. For more information about PE16007 and its lack of transparency, read Autonomous Vehicles, the Beta Test Coming to a Roadway Near You.

Safety Research & Strategies has long advocated for NHTSA transparency. For example, in February 2014, SRS submitted comments in advance of the agency finalizing its 2014 – 2018 Strategic Plan, highlighting its concern with NHTSA’s lack of transparency. SRS founder and President Sean Kane wrote: “Access to NHTSA’s investigations and data are increasingly difficult and expensive for the public and researchers as the agency assigns significant costs to provide information in response to FOIA requests. In some cases they have also refused to release information that should be public requiring FOIA litigation that has cost the Agency thousands of tax-payer dollars to settle.”

Since 2010, SRS has sued the Department of Transportation six times seeking public records on everything from child safety seats to unintended acceleration. All of these cases have been settled to our satisfaction. The four against NHTSA have ended with the agency agreeing to turn over more records and paying our fees, before a court judgement was rendered. You can read about our latest FOIA lawsuit here.

Whitfield says such an important conclusion by the agency should not be based on data that the government is withholding from researchers who want to examine NHTSA’s results.

“If the safety benefits of Autosteer are as positive as the Agency claims, why wouldn’t they want independent scientists to have the data in order to replicate these extraordinary results?” Whitfield asked.