What Do the Takata Recalls Really Mean?

Today, the Department of Transportation announced that it will organize the multi-manufacturer recall of 34 million airbag inflators announced by supplier Takata earlier this week. Just three days earlier, the agency took a victory lap, after finally forcing Takata to launch national – not regional – recalls and to work more closely – under the terms of a consent order and the threat of civil fines – with NHTSA to ferret out the root causes.

The story has played out as a win for the agency and another coat of polish on its newly acquired iron fist. And we find little to argue with there. However, at the consumer level, it may not mean much in the short term.

We haven’t seen an episode of High Noon that pitted federal sheriffs against a black-hatted OEM supplier since 2001, when NHTSA issued an Initial Decision – a painful and public prelude to NHTSA compelling an entity to conduct a recall – in the case of Firestone Wilderness tires on Ford Explorers. On October 4 of that year, more than a year after Firestone initiated its first recall for ATX and some Wilderness tires, the agency determined that that Wilderness tires in sizes P235/75R15 and P255/70R16 on SUVs were defective. Less than two weeks later, Firestone officially threw in the towel, and announced a recall rather than contesting the decision.

Under federal regulations, even suppliers have an obligation to file Part 573 defect notices with all of the same working parts as vehicle manufacturers – including detailed chronologies of the defect’s discovery, affected vehicles, and a no-charge remedy plan. To quote the CFR: “In the case of a defect or noncompliance decided to exist in original equipment installed in the vehicles of more than one manufacturer, compliance with §573.6 is required of the equipment manufacturer as to the equipment item, and of each vehicle manufacturer as to the vehicles in which the equipment has been installed.”

Typically, it is the vehicle manufacturer that assumes these obligations. And, back in 2009, when the snowball started rolling downhill, Honda filed the Part 573s, with very sketchy chronologies, and conducted the recalls with varying degrees of success. But as the explanations for exploding inflators kept shifting and problem gathered mass in 2013, with 10 manufacturers launching recalls, Congressional hearings, new deaths and injuries, along with a steady stream of acid press, the pressure had been building on Takata to officially acknowledge the defect and provide more transparency about the causes. Takata filed recall notices in 2013 and 2014. In December, the agency threatened civil fines if Takata did not launch a nationwide recall for inflators that might explode from over-pressurization. Takata basically told NHTSA to stick it – the agency had no evidence to support its demand, and, by the way, you have no power here!

That was it for NHTSA. The safety-free, deal cuttin’ days of former DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and his sidekick NHTSA Administrator David Strickland (ever brothers, now as lobbyists) were over. You may recall the NHTSA-Chrysler showdown of June 2013, over older Jeeps with behind-the-axle, rear-mounted fuel tanks which burst into flames when struck from the rear – especially at higher speeds. NHTSA formally requested that Chrysler conduct a recall, but the automaker had no interest. To avoid a legal brawl, LaHood, Strickland and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne came up with a cosmetic solution – a retro-fitted tow-hitch, which one year later the automaker hadn’t installed on one vehicle. In the meantime, the roadside incinerations continue and in April a Georgia jury awarded $150 million to the family of a 2012 death of four-year-old boy, who died in his booster seat after the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind and burst into flames. The airport conference-room recall that the trio cooked up with is still leaving a stench.

Takata has filed four separate Part 573s and here’s what they have told us:

First, after six years of offering revolving root-cause explanations – when anyone bothered at all – Takata concedes that this is a multi-root cause problem involving moisture intrusion caused by leaking seals, the design of the inflator, the airbag, the vehicle, the shape of the propellant, and manufacturing “variability”:

It appears that the inflator ruptures have a multi-factor root cause that includes the slow-acting effects of a persistent and long term exposure to climates with high temperatures and high absolute humidity. Exposure over a period of several years to persistent levels of high absolute humidity outside the inflator, combined with the effects of thermal cycling, may lead to moisture intrusion in some inflators by means of diffusion or permeation. Fraunhofer ICT has identified the possibility in these climates for moisture intrusion into the inflator over time and a process by which the moisture may slowly increase the porosity of the propellant within the inflator. Fraunhofer ICT's analysis also indicates that the design of the inflator and the grain (shape) of the propellant can affect the likelihood that the porosity change will occur, as can manufacturing variability. The results of the Fraunhofer ICT research to date are consistent with the geographic location and age of the inflators that have ruptured in the field and in Takata's testing. Takata's testing also indicates that the design of the vehicle and the design of the air bag module are associated with differences in outcomes.   


Takata is also aware of a potential issue associated with the inflator body internal tape seals on some SPI inflators. During its investigation, Takata observed a small number of tape seal leaks in SPI inflators manufactured prior to 2007. These leaks were discovered during leak testing in 2014, as part of the Takata returned-inflator evaluation program.


Second, we got an official count of field incidents: Takata put that figure at 84, if we add the ruptures in each of the four defect notices.

Third, we learned that the recall system sucks – 77 percent (65) of the incidents occurred in vehicles that had already been recalled but not remedied.

But playing chicken with Takata differs from the NHTSA-Firestone standoff in one key respect: Takata cannot directly recall vehicles as tiremakers – which have distinct recall obligations from other OEM component manufacturers – do.

And unlike any recall to come before in the history of recalls, NHTSA will apparently be coordinating the whole enchilada. There is, however, a nifty tie to the Firestone recalls. The agency is tapping a heretofore unused power granted by the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, passed in the wake of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire crisis. Interesting historical irony for NHTSA scholars. For consumers, that means that the zillions of inflators will pass through three entities: Takata, the vehicle manufacturers and NHTSA. How this plays out we'll have to wait and see. But the days of filing a recall and doing your thing appear to be gone for now.  

NHTSA Denies Toyota Unintended Acceleration Defect Petition

Eight months after a Bristol, RI Toyota Corolla owner petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate low-speed surges into Toyota Corollas, the agency has denied the petition, concluding:

In our view, a defects investigation is unlikely to result in a finding that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists or a NHTSA order for the notification and remedy of a safety-related defect as alleged by the petitioner at the conclusion of the requested investigation. Therefore, given a thorough analysis of the potential for finding a safety related defect in the vehicle and in view of the need to allocate and prioritize NHTSA's limited resources to best accomplish the agency's safety mission and mitigate risk, the petition is respectfully denied.

The Safety Record shares this view. NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is unlikely to find a defect. For one, they lack the resources to find an intermittent electronic defect that produced unintended acceleration (UA). Two, ODI does not want to find an electronic defect. After 12 years of investigations – including six petitions filed by consumers (Six! Has any one defect ever prompted that many petitions for investigations? Toyota – another record. Yay, you!), NHTSA has never been able to determine why so many Toyota drivers continue to complain about unintended acceleration. The endless dead-ends and denials have amounted to a deep hole that the agency will never climb out of.

Bob and Kathy Ruginis sought NHTSA’s help after Kathy experienced a UA while parking her 2010 Corolla last June. The vehicle surged forward while her foot was on the brake and crashed into an unoccupied parked Jeep in front of it. The car, which had already been remedied under the floor mat entrapment and sticky accelerator recalls, had been briefly surging – usually at higher speeds, since the couple bought the vehicle new in May 2010. Kathy Ruginis, a Catholic school educator, used the Corolla for commuting to her job in Massachusetts. Early in her ownership, she had taken the vehicle twice to the dealership complaining of these surges. The dealership techs drove her car in a circle around a big box store-parking lot and proclaimed that the surges were just the result of downshifting.

Bob Ruginis was not surprised that NHTSA failed to find an electronic source for the malfunction and advance his petition. For one, after the electronics engineer turned the errant Corolla over to NHTSA for testing and asked for the agency’s test protocol, he never received anything from the agency.

“I knew it most likely wouldn’t help me,” he said. “But I hoped it would help some other people.”

 Neither NHTSA, nor Toyota has ever believed a driver’s report about what occurred in a crash. In general, narratives are given no weight if ODI investigators don’t have a pretty good handle on the technical issue already. In addition to Kathy Ruginis’s report, and the affirmation of her passenger in the front seat, she had another witness – the Event Data Recorder (EDR), which showed at the time of the crash that the brake was on, the accelerator was off, but somehow the speed increased and the engine rpms doubled. A Toyota EDR read-out that actually reflects the driver’s and passenger’s account of the crash pretty well is not so common.  

But, for ODI, the EDR is a Rorschach – it means whatever the engineers want it to mean and it always means driver error. However, the agency really had to work to make this reading count against the driver, and for this they turned to the asynchronous nature of the various data points. ODI argued that just because the readout shows the brake on and the accelerator off and the speed increasing at the same time, does not mean that all of those events occurred at the same time. Nonetheless the logic employed to make this a case of pedal misapplication plus late braking is contradictory and tortured.  


NHTSA argued that her brake was on at the final data-point read out “proves” that she braked after the crash. However, according to NHTSA, the three data-points showing the accelerator off during the last three of five seconds of the EDR readout shows that Kathy Ruginis rapidly punched the accelerator in the milliseconds between recorded data points. The denial states:

ODI does not believe that the brake switch data recorded by the EDR is consistent with the petitioner's statement that the vehicle accelerated with the brake applied and vehicle testing demonstrated that acceleration would not occur if the brake pedal had been applied with any meaningful force. In addition, although the EDR does not show any increase in accelerator pedal voltage in the final 2.8 seconds prior to impact, this does not mean that the accelerator pedal was not depressed during that time period.

Got that? The brake data is gospel, but the accelerator data is suspect. In short, they called Kathy Ruginis a liar. Chris Caruso, an EDR expert who examined Toyota EDRs as a consultant for the multidistrict litigation economic loss case against Toyota  agreed that NHTSA could not logically or credibly use the data’s asynchronicity to conclude that the driver only engaged the brake after the crash, but that she definitely depressed the accelerator sometime before it.

“We could make the same plausible argument that she was pumping the brakes for the entire five seconds, in between the one-second intervals.” Caruso said.

What is harder to explain, says Caruso, is the absence of a corresponding rise in engine RPMs as the speed of the vehicle doubled in the last two seconds. NHTSA did not address the RPM readings, which showed the RPMs remaining constant at 800 until the last data-point, in which they doubled 1,600. Caruso said that it is impossible for the vehicle speed to increase by 50 percent in 2 seconds leading to the trigger point, while the engine rpms remain at idle. And even if the driver punched the accelerator in-between the 1-second intervals of data collection sometime in the last two seconds, the engine rpms would rise and stay elevated afterwards, because they take time to decrease.

NHTSA’s EDR analysis is “deceiving,” he added.

“She would have to floor it to get that 50 percent increase in throttle. Why don’t the rpms go up?” Caruso said. “If you look at the last two seconds, even if she blipped the accelerator to increase the speed from 3.7 to 5 in one second, the engine rpms cannot recover to idle in that same amount of time. To me, it’s a smoking gun that doesn’t jibe with anything else.”

ODI also pooh-poohed the suggestion that Michael Barr’s analysis of Toyota’s faulty software could provide them some clues of how software could faults could cause UA events not recorded by the engine control module. Barr’s theories were unproven, and applied to a different vehicle with a different electronic system, NHTSA said. Never mind that Barr, a well-known embedded software expert, did something ODI did not – examine Toyota software for the Camry line by line for the plaintiffs in Bookout v. Toyota, a UA case involving a 2007 crash that seriously injured the driver and killed her passenger. Never mind that his detailed explanation of Toyota’s horrible software persuaded an Oklahoma jury in October 2013 to rule against Toyota, awarding the plaintiffs $3 million, before assessing punitive damages and persuaded Toyota hence forth to settle somewhere north of 250 death and injury UA cases since. Just, never mind.

Barr says that shortly after the Ruginis petition became public, he “attempted to contact NHSTA’s Office of Defects Investigation, to ensure they were aware of my relevant work and conclusions.  However, no one from ODI ever reached out to me.”

He also defended the relevance of his work to the task of determining why so many Toyotas run away from their drivers:

"Barr Group's analysis of Toyota’s ETCS-i software was more extensive, both in breadth and in depth, than the software analysis by NASA.  We had access to more software source code than NASA did, and also information about many more vehicle models and model years.  My team of software experts spent over a year pushing the review of Toyota’s engines considerably deeper, he said. “Ultimately, we identified a set of defects in Toyota’s ETCS-i software that NASA specifically worried about in its report but didn’t have sufficient time to find.  We used fault injection testing in a pair of production Toyota vehicles to trigger the defects we found and these tests confirmed that software malfunctions can explain at least some of the reported incidents of sudden acceleration.”

"The evidence supporting my conclusions was documented in full detail in my expert report, which contains more than 500 pages of facts and analysis.  It is my understanding that no one from NHTSA or NASA has ever read this report,” he said. “As I testified in the Bookout trial in Oklahoma in October 2013, the defects in Toyota’s ETCS-i software can be deadly.  As far as I know, these defects have never been remedied by any recall."

ODI did throw the Ruginises a bone. It agreed that: “uncontrolled vehicle accelerations in parking lot environments represent a clear safety hazard to surrounding traffic, pedestrians and even building occupants, as vehicles often accelerate inside of businesses with facing parking spaces where they have caused serious and sometimes fatal injuries.”

But, the good folk at ODI concluded that any possible technical cause would remain a mystery. 

Let’s face it: Jesus, Mary or Joseph McClelland could come to the agency and show ODI investigators unintended acceleration as it happened in real time, and ODI would find a way to dismiss it. In May 2012, two ODI engineers witnessed a 2004 Prius, owned by Joseph McClelland, an electrical engineer and high-ranking government official with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, accelerate on its own several times while on a test drive with the owner, without interference from the floor mat, without a stuck accelerator pedal or the driver’s foot on any pedal. They videotaped these incidents and downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncommanded in the owner’s garage and admonished the owner to preserve his vehicle, untouched, for further research. “They said: Did you see that?” McClelland recalled in a sworn statement.  “This vehicle is not safe, and this could be a real safety problem.” Three months later, the agency dumped the investigation. Investigators told McClelland that they weren’t interested because it was an end-of-life issue for the battery and told The New York Times that it wasn’t a safety issue: [NHTSA] also noted that the vehicle “could easily be controlled by the brakes” and “displayed ample warning lights” indicating engine trouble.”

For all intents and purposes, the Ruginis’s Corolla has been parked ever since the crash. Kathleen Ruginis refused to drive the vehicle ever again. Bob Ruginis took it out a few times to be inspected in preparation for selling the Corolla.

“I’ve taken it to a couple of car dealers, and told them about the incident and that this car was investigation and none of them cared. They would all take it from me, and they all gave me pretty much what the car is worth.”

To the Ruginis family, that 2010 Corolla was worthless as a mode of transportation. To NHTSA, the vehicle could have been the start point for an honest examination of electronic malfunction. But NHTSA’s always much more focused on the task of proving everyone and anyone other than themselves wrong. In that way, they are much like Toyota electronics – infallible.

But one day, NHTSA will understand today’s automotive electronics – probably around the time that cars move from self-driving to flying.

NHTSA to Tire Consumers: Google It

On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration amended the Tire Identification Number, the alpha-numeric code used to identify specific tires in a recall. This time, the agency expanded the first portion of the TIN, known as the manufacturer identifier, from two symbols to three for manufacturers of new tires, because the agency is quickly running out of unique two-digit combinations. It also standardized the length of the tire identification number to 13 symbols for new tires and seven symbols for re-treaded tires to eliminate confusion that could arise from the variable length of tire identification numbers, to make it easier to identify a TIN from which a symbol is missing.

These changes will compel tire mold changes – dreaded and to be resisted at all costs by the tire industry. And, NHTSA accommodated tiremakers’ antipathy for changing the molds by setting the lead-time to 10 years into the future. The new rule will take root when today’s molds wear out and need to be changed anyway. With the pervasive mold problem addressed, the agency might have taken this occasion to make some significant changes to the TIN – such as requiring a non-dated code of manufacture, and placing the complete TIN on both sides of the tire – so that consumers could use the TIN to identify a tire that had been recalled.

After all, as the agency pronounced in the Federal Register, the TIN “plays an important role in identifying which tires are subject to recall and remedy campaigns for safety defects and noncompliances.”

Safety Research & Strategies and the National Transportation Safety Board, which has taken on tire safety as a priority recently, both made these helpful suggestions during the public comment period of the rulemaking. The NTSB pointed out that NHTSA had recognized the importance of determining the full TIN in “identifying a tire for safety recall management; enabling regulators, manufacturers, and safety advocates to process owner complaints; and tracking tire production.” It argued that standardizing the TIN to better distinguish between full and partial TINs rests on the erroneous “assumption that anyone looking for the TIN is aware that passenger tires can have both a full and a partial TIN molded on the sidewalls. It also noted that the date of manufacture code plays a significant role in identifying recalled tires. “Unless an entire tire line is the subject of a recall or investigation, the date of manufacture will often define the scope of an action. Because many tires can be mounted with either sidewall facing outward, placing the TIN on both sidewalls would ensure better access and identification, and NHTSA should consider expanding the scope of this NPRM to include this requirement.” The NTSB suggested that the economic impact could be mitigated by allowing the date code to be laser-etched into the TIN, negating the need to set the date code in the tire mold.

But, the agency said: People! We weren’t trying to fix the broken tire recall system, we just wanted some more plant codes, fer Chrissakes.

Longer version: “Given that we did not propose any changes to the date code portion of the TIN, nor did we discuss or request comment on any potential changes to the date code, such a change may be beyond the scope of this rulemaking. Even if it were in scope, however, we do not believe a change to the date code is necessary for consumers to determine when their tires were manufactured. NHTSA’s tire consumer Web site, http://www.safercar.gov/tires/index.html, explains in several places how to find and interpret the date code. Furthermore, a person should easily be able to determine the location of the date of manufacture on a tire is located either by querying an internet search engine or by asking a tire dealer.”

Shorter version: Google it.

You can tell that NHTSA truly believes that TIN “plays an important role in identifying which tires are subject to recall and remedy campaigns for safety defects and noncompliances,” by calculating how super effective it has been in the recall process. The last time we looked at return rates over a 10-year period of 1996 to 2006, the average historical rate for tires was about 30 percent – with wide ranges among campaigns. In contrast, vehicle recall completion rates hover in the low 70s.

And, we are compelled to note, the massive and high-profile Firestone Wilderness AT and ATX recalls of early 2000s boosted the tire recall repair average to as high as it was over that particular span. In 2000, the OEM tire failures shouldered the entire blame for the Ford Explorer rollover deaths and injuries. About 20 million P235/75R15 ATX and 15, 16 and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires were recalled. Using a fudge-y guesstimate method, Firestone claimed that it had collected 95 percent of the defective tires. But guess what? Recalled Firestone AT and ATX are still on the road, still being sold and rotated into service, and they are still killing people.

In fact, 45 years ago, when NHTSA’s predecessor, the National Highway Safety Bureau, established the tire recall system, the TIN was the linchpin: In 1970, the bureau noted : “An essential element of an effective tire defect notification system is a suitable method of identifying the tire involved.” But its suitability has always been shaped by the rubber industry, and the needs of consumers with a recalled tire they can’t readily identify has yet to rise to the level of an after-thought.

The rule’s history shows that every time the agency had an opportunity to improve the tire recall system so that consumers or tire professionals could reasonably use it, NHTSA chose to do nothing. Every. Single. Bleeping. Time.  But don’t take our word on it. The Safety Record once spent weeks assembling the rulemaking history of the tire identification number so you don’t have to.

Great Moments in TIN History


The National Highway Safety Bureau begins set-up of tire recall system. Proposes requiring manufacturers to keep tire consumer records and develop a standard identification number for tires that would be molded on both sides of the sidewalls. Industry begins amassing best batting streak since Ty Cobb. Recognizes that the date of manufacture is possibly the most important part of the code, but doesn’t want the consumer to be able to read it. Firestone sez: “tires are not perishable items. Therefore, a conspicuous disclosure of tire age would unavoidably introduce into the marketplace a totally artificial measure of quality unrelated to product performance and effectiveness.”  Agency drops the TIN on both sidewalls part of the proposal, because, it reasoned, under the consumer records part of the proposal, first purchasers of tires would receive notification of defects


U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, chairman of the Commerce Committee petitions NHTSA on behalf of the independent tire dealers and distributors— to create an independent tire registry to collect the names and addresses of first purchasers and report them to manufacturers along with an agreement that indemnify the manufacturers if the registry failed to uphold the record-keeping regulations. Tiremakers go postal: We don’t want to pay for it and it will ruin the current system, which works just great.


NHTSA tries to establish a universal registration form for tire manufacturers, brand name owners and tire retreaders to provide to their distributors and dealers. Manufacturers crank Government Terror Alert Level to fire-engine Red:  Time and money spent developing their own systems! Wasted forms! Computer chaos!


NHTSA cops out by making the universal registration format optional. It drops the requirement to give a copy to the first purchaser, because manufacturers said that it served no purpose in facilitating recalls.


In response to a petition by the Center for Auto Safety, the agency proposes requiring that the TIN to be molded on the white wall side of the passenger tire, so that consumers could read the damned thing. Industry goes nuts. Uniroyal, for example, says that bringing consumers into the recall process would actually be detrimental to them, because consumers can’t read serial numbers.


NHTSA terminates rulemaking claiming it would not provide any safety benefits.

Congress prohibits NHTSA from requiring independent tire dealers and distributors from supplying manufacturers with names and addresses to first purchasers. Instead, consumers get registrations cards to send in. Tire dealers acquiesce to writing TIN on the form.


Agency determines that tire registration rates suck and proposes a bunch of changes to beef them up:  requiring prepaid postage on the registration forms; requiring dealers to give Uniform Tire Quality Grading Standards information to consumers highlighting the registration process; and establishing a tire registration clearinghouse. Industry refuses to click “Like” button.


NHTSA drops all proposals to require tire dealers to give consumers tire info about the Uniform Tire Quality Grading Standards at point of sale. Move all such information to the well-thumbed pages of the vehicle owner’s manual. Other proposals vanish.


TREAD Act requires NHTSA to improve tire recall process the tire labeling to help consumers identify tires in the event of a recall. Once again, the agency raised the question of placing the TIN on both sides of the sidewall to make it easy for consumers to locate and read.


NHTSA proposes new rule to require complete TIN be molded on both side of the tire, among other format changes. Tiremakers say “Hell no.”


Agency chickens out. Decides not to force manufacturers to mold the full TIN on both sides of the tire. However, does require the TIN to appear on the “intended outboard sidewall” and either a full or partial TIN –i.e. one without a date code—appear on the inside sidewall – perpetuating confusion that the current rulemaking – 13-years later – is supposed to address..


Major mold protest saves the day.  Agency eliminates the phase-in dates to put the TIN on the intended outward sidewall. Instead, manufacturers would have until September 1, 2009 – a concession to you-know-who who complained that it would cost too much to re-work all of the molds. By pushing the date ahead five years, it would give manufacturers time for current molds to wear-out, before their replacement.


Only 38 years after making the TIN a key element of the tire recall identification system, agency notices that it doesn’t actually require tiremakers to list recalled tires by TIN in the mandated Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Notice. Proposes to close that loophole. Good catch!


Loophole closed.


MAP-21, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, becomes law. It requires rulemaking within a year to make vehicle recall information available to the public on the Internet in a searchable database. NHTSA complies. Safety Research & Strategies submits comments requesting that the agency also consider adding a TIN search function to its public Web portal and require tire makers, as well as automakers to maintain the recall remedy status by TIN.


NHTSA’s response to adding TINs to new recall database requirements: No. Congress didn’t make us do that.

In Conclusion

Here’s something you can Google. Anytime the agency says  the TIN “plays an important role in identifying which tires are subject to recall and remedy campaigns for safety defects and noncompliances,” type  “NHTSA to Tire Consumers: Google It” in the search box, and re-read the section of this blog entitled Great Moments in TIN History. This will remind you that NHTSA’s belief in the importance of the TIN has never been matched by its actions.

Behind the Honda $70 Million Fine

Honda had its turn on the ducking stool yesterday. The Japanese automaker, which had previously disclosed that a data entry glitch led to a failure to report some 1,729 death and injury claims to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Early Warning Reporting system, got held underwater until it agreed to pay $70 million in fines.  

NHTSA’s press release blamed Honda “for failing to comply with laws that safeguard the public.” But it’s far more important to examine the longstanding systemic problems behind the headline. In an audit prepared by the defense litigation firm Bowman & Brooke, Honda explained it as an institutional failure to populate or correctly code certain fields on a form that ultimately went to the Product Regulatory Office, which was responsible for submitting EWR data.  Honda learned about the problem from NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) in late 2011. Yet, the automaker did not correct this administrative error and the regulator did not impose a penalty until three years later — when both were in the teeth of a Category 5 sh-tstorm over exploding Takata-supplied airbags.

Indeed, the EWR system, a key component of the 2000 Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, Enforcement and Documentation (TREAD) Act, was intended to sharpen the agency’s defect detection capabilities and “safeguard the public.” But it hasn’t always worked out that way. NHTSA and the industry regard EWR as little more than a bureaucratic pain-in-the-neck: The first thing the industry did during the EWR rulemaking process was fight to keep the data secret, and the agency’s first order of business was to pare down the amount of information coming to it.

Instead of giving investigators a heads-up on emerging defects, it has functioned as an identifier of failed recalls. Manufacturers report – or not. There’s no robust process for auditing participation. There are no benchmarks for sanctions. In addition to Honda, Congress caught Ferrari failing to report a single claim in a decade. In 2013, Safety Research & Strategies caught a tire maker and two child seat manufacturers that did not report injuries and death claims to EWR; The Safety Record reported that Mercedes is likely severely under-reporting physical damage claims. Honda and Ferrari were fined, because the Hill has taken an interest. But it’s clear that they aren’t the only offenders. 

In official publications, NHTSA touts EWR’s role in identifying defects or supporting defect investigations. But in more intimate settings, NHTSA has taken a less sanguine view. To the National Academies of Science committee on electronic throttle controls, representatives of the ODI said EWR was too vague to be really useful:

“In briefings to the committee, ODI analysts noted that the EWR data lack the detail needed to be the primary source for monitoring the fleet for safety defects and that the main use of these data (especially the field reports) has been to support defect monitoring and investigations by supplementing traditional ODI data,” according to the Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics: Insights from Unintended Acceleration.

At a recent legal conference for the defense bar, NHTSA’s Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent conceded: “Frankly [EWR]’s not early and it’s sometimes really not a great warning, because you have to dig down into the data.”

What Honda’s Fine Tells Us about NHTSA: No Follow-Up

Once a defect reaches the public crisis stage, and everyone starts ripping at the veils of secrecy that have draped a particular problem heretofore from widespread notice, one key factor in the run-up pops up regularly: NHTSA knew pretty early on and did not respond appropriately. The last five years has seen three whoppers: Toyota Unintended Acceleration, loose GM ignition switches and Takata airbags. In each case, the release of documents from entities outside of the agency shows that NHTSA saw the iceberg coming but, for various reasons, did not adjust its course.

  • Toyota Unintended Acceleration – In December 2003, Steve Chan, a NHTSA ODI staffer, wrote an Issue Evaluation documenting the spike in acceleration complaints in Camrys equipped with a drive-by-wire throttle. The memo noted that Toyota had already issued two technical service bulletins that related to the problem. In doing his peer analysis, Chan showed that the total complaints for Camry and Lexus vehicles far exceeded those for Honda, Nissan and Dodge models, but that the Camry and Lexus complaint rate was comparable to that of the Nissan Maxima. Nonetheless, Chan found that “the complaints do not show a geographic or seasonal trend but do show a strong recent trend of UA incidents.” Chan’s risk assessment concluded: “Although most of the alleged UA incidents had occurred at very low speed (5 to 15 mph), the percentage of incidents that resulted in a crash is high (27/40 or about 68%). Estimation from some of the complainants on engine surging duration ranged from a low of 2 seconds to as high as 20 seconds. These incidents, thought generally at low speeds, are of high risk to pedestrians because they represent situations that could occur in parking lots, at intersections, and at school lots.” NHTSA declined to open an investigation.


  • GM Ignition Switches — In March 2007, a group of GM employees met with NHTSA representatives in Washington, D.C., to discuss occupant restraint systems. During this meeting, a NHTSA representative informed the GM employees of a fatal crash that occurred on July 29, 2005, in which a 2005 Cobalt was involved in a frontal collision, the airbags did not deploy, and data retrieved from the car’s sensing and diagnostic module (SDM) indicated that the car’s power mode status was “accessory.” In May 2007, NHTSA sent GM a Death Investigation information request regarding an October 2006 fatal Wisconsin crash. In September of that year, ODI’s Department of Defect Assessment advised opening a formal investigation into the problem. According to a memo written by DAD head Greg Magno, the pattern was noted in 2005 and was investigated by the Special Crash Investigation (SCI) team (which suggested the connection between the non-deployment and the loose ignition switch Technical Service Bulletin): “Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers and that their circumstances are such that, in our engineering judgment, merited a deployment, and that such a deployment would have reduced injury levels or saved lives.” NHTSA declined to open an investigation.


  • Takata Airbags – According to a review of Honda’s EWR failures by Bowman & Brooke, in late 2011 or early 2012, two employees of NHTSA’s ODI informed Jay Joseph, of American Honda Manufacturing’s Product Regulatory Office, that airbag injury and  death claims were missing from the automaker’s EWR reports: “In looking over separate reports provided by Honda pertaining to the Takata airbag recall, they had noticed that there were half a dozen or so injury or death incidents listed on the detailed spreadsheet that was provided to NHTSA by Mr. Joseph in connection with NHTSA’s review of Takata airbag performance that they could not find having been previously reported as EWRs in the TREAD reporting system.” Joseph explained that two of the incidents were not reportable because the vehicles were more than a decade old, and he would get back them about the others. According to the audit, he did not, and NHTSA apparently did not ask again.


In the case of Toyota, NHTSA was hampered by its failure to keep up with the technological changes in automotive safety-critical systems. It didn’t know much about automotive electronics because it had never regulated them and had not laid an institutional foundation of knowledge. If you don’t know how something works, how can you investigate it? Instead, it cowered in its comfort-zone of mechanical defects and driver error, and every ounce of agency energy has been expended in preserving that view to this day.

In the other two defects, ignorance is a little harder to claim. In the case of GM, NHTSA defended its decision by saying that it didn’t understand that the airbags were turned off when the ignition was in the accessory position. But, the connection had already been made by a Wisconsin State Trooper who investigated the October 2006 crash involving a 2005 Cobalt, which  killed the 15-year-old driver, Megan Phillips, and passenger Amy Rademaker – and by NHTSA’s own SCI team, which also investigated that crash.

In the Takata airbag saga, we learn several things from that single sentence in Honda’s audit report. In 2011, NHTSA caught Honda under-reporting death and injury claims and took no action. NHTSA had a detailed spreadsheet of injuries and deaths caused by “unusual” and “energetic” airbag deployments. Yet, the Recall Management Division allowed Honda to make Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance reports without ever mentioning deaths or injuries from this defect – so the public was largely unaware. NHTSA, which had no formal open investigation into Honda’s rolling recalls since 2009, did not open a new formal investigation, despite this knowledge of injuries and deaths.

A Brief History of EWR

In 2000, Congress passed the TREAD Act in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco. The EWR system required manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage, warranty claims and other information to the government on a quarterly basis. The information was supposed to help government investigators identify defect trends.

EWR data consists of aggregates of broad defect categories, such as “powertrain” and “airbags” but no sub-categories. So it is impossible to determine from EWR data even some of the common defect trends, such as non-deploying airbags, or inadvertently deploying airbags, or ignition switch failures. (If NHTSA investigators want information beyond the general categories code they request the underlying documents for review.)  Any incident involving a vehicle older than 10 years or a tire older than five years does not have to be reported. 

The TREAD Act presumed that most of the EWR data would be public, but after a court battle between the Rubber Manufacturers Association and Public Citizen over the accessibility of tire claims data, NHTSA responded by keeping warranty claims, consumer complaints to the manufacturer, field reports, common green tire information, production data for all except light vehicles, and the last six digits of the vehicle identification number in death and injury claims confidential. Only death, injury and property damage information was included in the public dataset.

In the 2007 Final Rule, NHTSA amended the definition of “fire” to more accurately capture fire related events, eliminated the requirement to produce hard copies of product evaluation reports, and required automakers to update missing vehicle identification number (VIN)/ tire identification number (TIN) or components on incidents of death or injury to a period of no more than one year after NHTSA received the initial report.

In August 2013, the agency added new reporting categories related to emerging technologies.  The Final Rule mandated that automakers specify the vehicle type and the fuel and/or propulsion system type in their quarterly EWR submissions, and added new component categories of electronic stability control, forward collision avoidance, lane departure prevention, backover prevention systems for light vehicles and stability control systems for buses, emergency vehicles, and medium-heavy vehicle  manufacturers.


How Significant are EWR Failures?

Early Warning Reports offer no laser-like precision, but they are not useless. In a 2012 Preliminary Regulatory Evaluation, NHTSA said: “Since 2004, EWR data have played a role in the opening of 150 Preliminary Evaluations (PEs). Among those 150 PEs, 31 PEs have been opened based on EWR data, with the remaining 119 PEs supported—but not initiated—by EWR data.”

In an undated document entitled Public Release of EWR Data, the agency said:

As of October 1, 2011, NHTSA has used the EWR data in 225 investigations; 68 were launched because of EWR data alone; 157 were prompted by other information but supported by the EWR data.

The Safety Institute, a non-profit organization founded by SRS president Sean Kane, has also demonstrated the use of EWR data through its Vehicle Safety Watch List.  “The watch list is the culmination of years of hearing that NHTSA simply didn’t have the data to spot problems sooner” said Kane.

And yet, NHTSA, proudly “data-driven,” remains unwilling to make its peace with this unwanted tool. If the agency caught Honda under-reporting EWR data in 2011, it’s fair to assume this wasn’t the first time it found missing claims from a manufacturer. Honda was in no hurry to fix it. There’s no question that it is Honda’s obligation to make these reports, and it deserves to be sanctioned for breaking the law. But, we submit that but for the agency’s laissez-faire attitude toward EWR, Honda might have corrected it much sooner.

NHTSA’s new administrator, Mark Rosekind, has correctly identified some of NHTSA’s most serious gaps – a need for a formal, structured approach to vehicle defect analysis and recalls. He has vowed to seek more resources and authority from Congress.

Where is EWR in this mix? In a recent Automotive News article, Rosekind recounted a conversation with “a senior employee from NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations who suggested using less data could be more effective in spotting defects, rather than more.” At best, it’s a curious stance for any investigator to take. But, when you consider the record, perhaps it’s not entirely crazy. Not knowing doesn’t seem to be NHTSA’s problem so much as not doing, caused by a long history and complex combination of a lack of resources, technical knowledge, process, procedures and priorities.


Texas Attorney Asks NHTSA for Tire Investigation

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent’s message to the defense bar a few months ago at a legal conference was pretty clear – keep us in the loop, or risk the consequences. NHTSA’s message to the plaintiffs’ bar has been more like radio silence, so it will be interesting to see what the Recall Management Division does with a request to investigate the failure of a tire distributor to recall a defective Chinese tire already recalled by a different distributor, marketing the same tire under a different brand name. 

Michael Cowen, of the Cowen Law Group in Brownsville, Texas wrote to the agency today asking for an Equipment Query regarding Hercules A/T radial tires sold by the Hercules Rubber & Tire Company.

Cowen represents Krystal Cantu, 25, who lost half of her right arm in an August 2, 2013 crash caused by a catastrophic tread separation. Cantu was a front-seat, belted passenger in a 2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac, when the left-rear tire – a Capitol Precision Trac II – failed as the vehicle traveled southbound on Interstate 37 in Atascosa County, Texas. The driver lost control when the vehicle skidded; Ms. Cantu’s right arm was crushed in the subsequent rollover.

ITG Voma cited this crash in its October Part 573 Notice of Defect and Noncompliance to recall 94,890 Capitol Precision Trac II tires manufactured between December 2008 and May 2010. The defective tires, actually manufactured by Shandong Yongsheng Rubber Co., Ltd., lacked a nylon cap ply, which made the tires less robust and prone to tread separations.

“Selling essentially the same tire and under a different brand that isn’t covered under the recall needs to be thoroughly investigated by NHTSA.  Our request and the information submitted to the agency should assist them in obtaining a complete accounting of all the tires that need to be taken off the roads” Cowen said in a press release. 

On April 2, 2014, Cantu filed a lawsuit against Voma and the Shandong Yongsheng Rubber Co., Ltd., among other defendants. During the discovery phase of the case, a manufacturer’s representative revealed that the Capitol Precision Trac II shared a common green tire designation with another tire branded as the Hercules Radial A/T in eight different sizes. NHTSA defines a common green tire as “tires that are produced to the same internal specifications but that have, or may have, different external characteristics and may be sold under different tire line names.”  This means that the Hercules A/T and Capitol tires are essentially the same.

Under federal recall regulations, the company that brands the tire is considered the manufacturer, and is responsible for reporting defects to NHTSA and launching a recall. In a December 17 letter, Cowen asked the agency to open a defect investigation called an Equipment Query to pursue the Hercules Rubber & Tire Company, a marketer of replacement tires, headquartered in Findlay, Ohio and a partner of the Cooper Rubber & Tire Company, to launch a recall.

In 2007, Foreign Tire Sales (FTS), a tire importer based Union, New Jersey launched a recall after discovering that tires manufactured by the Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Co. Ltd for FTS had been built without or with inadequate .6mm c-shaped gum strips used to prevent the separation of belts. The recall followed a legal claim alleging that a catastrophic tread separation of a Telluride 245175R16 tire manufactured by Hangzhou and sold by FTS caused a fatal rollover crash. FTS had claimed to NHTSA that Hangzhou sold similar tires via other importers. The agency’s Recall Management Division responded by sending letters to 17 tire importers/distributors of Hangzhou tires.

The EQ was eventually closed with no further action – all 17 distributors claimed that they had none of the defective tires.

“This underscores the important role litigation plays in identifying safety defects” says SRS President Sean Kane. “It will be interesting to see how many of these defective tires actually come out of service in this campaign given the failed recall system.”

The weaknesses of the current tire recall system were among the topics discussed at length last week at a tire safety symposium hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB held the meeting in advance of a tire safety report and formal recommendations, expected to be issued next year.

GM Airbag Non-Deployments: What the NHTSA Data Really Show

Since the General Motors ignition switch debacle blew wide open last spring, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has defended its years-long failure to recall the deadly vehicles by arguing that several other vehicle models had more consumer injury-crash complaints related to airbag non-deployment (ABND) than either the 2005-2006 Cobalt or the 2003-2005 Ion. But a new analysis has shown NHTSA is hanging its hat on an unscientific analysis of data that doesn’t support its claim. The study found no statistically significant difference between the other vehicles’ crash complaints and those of the Cobalt or Ion. Combining the Cobalt and Ion complaints, which NHTSA didn’t do, shows the injury complaint rate was actually 54 percent higher for the GM vehicles than their peers. The agency could have performed a statistical analysis itself but chose instead to ignore it in favor of a quick look at the chart.

Trying to explain why it did nothing in the nine years after it first learned of a 2005 fatal accident in which a Cobalt’s front airbag inexplicably did not deploy, NHTSA  has repeatedly pointed the finger at GM, saying the automaker didn’t provide enough information to detect a trend. It has based much of this assertion on two analyses of crash-injury complaint rates, in 2007 and 2010, respectively. The 2007 analysis found that 10 non-GM vehicles had more ABND injury complaints than either the Cobalt or Ion. The 2006 Cobalt had 2.03 injury crashes per 100,000 “exposure years,” slightly less than half of the peer 2005 Toyota Echo’s 3.90 crashes per 100,000 exposure years. The 2005 Cobalt had 1.99 injury crashes, and the 2003-2005 Ion had between 1.61 and 1.68 crashes.

In his written testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in April, NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman said that the analysis shows that there was no reason for GM to be on its radar: “The data available at the time of this evaluation did not indicate a safety defect or defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation. In particular, the available data did not indicate that the Cobalt or Ion were overrepresented compared to other peer vehicles with respect to injury-crash incident rates.” Friedman further testified that the other vehicles were “significantly higher” in the complaint index.

But NHTSA did not present its underlying data, and the statistical research firm Quality Control Systems Corp. (QCS) got curious: What would the data show if the vehicles were compared to determine the statistical significance of their rankings? After obtaining the data through a Freedom of Information Act request, QCS analyzed it using classical statistical tests to determine if the differences NHTSA saw were, in fact, statistically significant.

QCS found that all of the comparisons fell within the range that showed there was no statistically significant difference between the Cobalts and individual peer models with higher complaint rates. According to its analysis, “the results in Table 2 do not sustain Mr. Friedman’s testimony regarding injury crash airbag non-deployment complaint rates that, ‘…there were several vehicles that were significantly higher,’ insofar as that conclusion does not rest on evidence from an appropriate test of statistical significance.”

Because the sample sizes were relatively small, QCS went a step further and combined the Cobalt and Ion complaints to compare those with all other peer vehicles combined. This result was very statistically significant: The average complaint rate for the combined GM vehicles was 54 percent higher than for the other vehicles.

“NHTSA was impressed by evidence no statistician would think was good, and the one piece of evidence that could have opened the eyes of a statistician was ignored,” said Randy Whitfield, a principle of QCS. “It’s the style of analysis NHTSA has been using for years and years. If they see something that lets them off the hook, where they don’t have to do hard work and they’re not going to have to fight with a manufacturer, if you can give them the least scrap of evidence, they jump on it.”

Even if the statistics weren’t scientifically unsound and overstated, a look at what was going on within NHTSA’s walls when it did the analysis shows that at least some people in the agency wanted an investigation into higher-than-average ABND incidents. The Energy and Commerce Committee’s staff report on the recall found that NHTSA undertook the analysis after the Early Warning Division confirmed 43 crashes—with 27 injuries and four deaths—linked to ABND. The agency had two investigation reports from crashes that mentioned that the engine was in the accessory mode. GM’s warranty claim rate for Cobalt airbags was significantly higher than that of its peer vehicles, and the Cobalt had the most airbag-related property damage claims. GM had also already issued three technical service bulletins for its airbag system.

That division referred the issue to the Defects Assessment Division (DAD), which opened an issue evaluation. DAD’s chief, Gregory Magno, eventually sent an email to the heads of several other NHTSA departments saying, “Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers and that their circumstances are such that, in our engineering judgment, merited a deployment, and that such a deployment would have reduced injury levels or saved lives.” Magno was concerned enough to request that NHTSA open an investigation within two weeks.

The Office of Defects Investigation panel waited two months before deciding there wasn’t enough evidence of a defect, based in large part on the complaints analysis. They dismissed the earlier accidents because they were off-road, had multiple impacts, and involved unbelted occupants.

So it wasn’t just that NHTSA didn’t delve closely into what the rankings actually meant—it gave unscientifically analyzed consumer complaints rates more weight than the growing rate of accidents and deaths, the significant number of airbag warranty claims, the GM technical service bulletins, and reports connecting the dots between the ABND and the ignition switch.

Flash forward to the 2010 analysis, and it does appear the number of consumer complaints to NHTSA fell significantly. The QCS evaluation confirmed that complaint rates for the 2005 Cobalt fell by 90 percent, and for the 2006 Cobalt, they fell by 75 percent. In interviews, Friedman said it was because GM secretly changed the ignition switch design in later models. But QCS said that doesn’t explain a radical drop in complaints for older models, which weren’t repaired. It could be that people are much less likely to complain to NHTSA if their car is out of warranty or they are no longer making payments on it. Whitfield said they don’t know why the complaints dropped so much, but it’s a question that is no longer being asked despite no real answer.

“Friedman told Congress and wrote a letter to USA Today saying it was the secret ignition switch change. How could that be when nobody knew about it and it wasn’t recalled? Why should we think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this, when NHTSA’s explanation is unsupported by the evidence in the public record?”

And, again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story: According to the committee staff report, the Early Warning Division noticed that in the second quarter of 2009, GM’s data showed, as the division’s chief said in an email to DAD, “a lot of death and injury incident reported from the Chevy Cobalt and Chevy Trailblazer 360 where the primary component is air bag.” NHTSA may not have been racking up consumer complaints in its database, but it knew people were still dying. And what did it do? Nothing – until it was asked by attorney Lance Cooper to investigate GM’s initial ignition switch recall.  

Solutions for NHTSA’s systemic problems need to include more than increased funding – which the agency certainly can use – but putting more money into an agency that hides behind incomplete, unscientific data to defend itself when scandals break is not a sound investment. 

A copy of the QCS report can be found here.

Elective Warning Reports Redux

Mercedes seat warmers are burning holes in their customers – but, really, who cares?

The Early Warning Reporting system, mandated by Congress in 2000 and officially established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the first collection of data in 2003 was supposed to use the power of data to detect defects at a distance. Death, injury, property damage claims in concert with vehicle production data would help tell the story. Over 10 years’ worth of numbers tells at least one story: Under-reporting is a problem and there is no real consequence for non-reporting – even if you do get caught.

Mercedes, that venerable manufacturer of fine German engineering, is a wonderful example of how EWR works – from the reporting issue to what the agency chooses to do with defect trend information that pops out of EWR data – like malfunctioning seat heaters that cause injuries and the manufacturer’s EWR reports to explode. But we’ll get to that in a moment. 

In early July, Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote to Acting Administrator David Friedman asking two questions:

  • How does NHTSA evaluate EWR reporting to ensure compliance?
  • Has NHTSA ever undertaken any enforcement action relating to a manufacturer's failure to fully or accurately report EWR claims?

The pair are sponsors of the Early Warning System Improvement Act, which would amp up the amount of data manufacturers would have to turn over to NHTSA in the case of death claims. Their letter to Friedman noted that Ferrari had never once filed a death or injury claim in EWR, and significant deviations between manufacturers’ EWR reporting. For example, from 2004-2013, GM filed an EWR death and injury report for every 1,524 vehicles sold, compared to Chrysler, death and injury claims for every 4,167 vehicles sold between 2004-2008 and one such report for 8,329 vehicles sold in 2009-2013.

EWR in Theory

In Friedman’s world, NHTSA thoroughly combs EWR for defect trends and non-reporters – the latter receiving stern communications reminding them of their obligations and of the serious consequences that await the guilty.
According to the Acting Administrator, the agency uses a variety of methods to ensure compliance, including information obtained during defect investigations and checking an automakers’ World Manufacturer Identification (WMI) number. “If a manufacturer has obtained a WMI number, but has not submitted early warning reporting information to NHTSA, NHTSA sends a letter to the manufacturer reminding it of its reporting obligations and the potential for civil penalties for non-compliance,” Friedman wrote. And in case there was any doubt:  NHTSA enforces EWR reporting requirements and pursues civil penalties “as appropriate” for noncompliance.

As for those wide disparities in reporting rates the Senators referenced – suggesting that some manufacturers may be under-reporting – Friedman attributes them to the “many factors” that can affect the number of reports, such as “vehicle use, owner demographics, and product mix.” Friedman also blamed manufacturers’ interpretations of what constitutes a claim: “Some manufacturers interpret ‘notice’ broadly and report incidents when the ‘notice’ consists of an article published in a newspaper describing an accident. Others are more conservative.” 

In Friedman’s world, once NHTSA gets those reports, “EWR data is thoroughly reviewed and analyzed,” using “sophisticated data mining techniques” to determine if potential defect trends exist.

EWR in Practice

In the real world, NHTSA does not notice when manufacturers do not file EWR reports. 

Senators Markey and Blumenthal, for example, noted that Ferrari had not filed one claim of any kind in 11 years – not NHTSA. Friedman said that the agency would look into it in response to that information.

Tire, component and child seat manufacturers don’t have WMIs, so the agency can’t use that number to chase EWR violators. 

In February 2013, SRS discovered three death and injury claims that had not been reported through EWR, and turned this information over to the agency. The missing claims involved one crash that occurred in in April 2009, involving a tire tread separation which resulted in an occupant sustaining a serious closed head injury. The second crash occurred in June 2010, involving the apparent failure of Harmony Lite Rider child restraint, which caused permanent and severe injuries to two young children. Harmony, which manufactured the child safety seat and Nankang, the Taiwanese tire manufacturer, and Tireco, the tire importer, were notified of these claims via civil lawsuits in August 2010 and November 2011, respectively. Neither were included in the manufacturer’s quarterly reports. 

To this day, Tireco is not even listed in NHTSA’s EWR database of manufacturers – meaning it has never submitted anything.

In the real world, NHTSA doesn’t care if manufacturers don’t file and, consequently, there are essentially no penalties for manufacturers who fail to file reportable claims. In May 2012, SRS disclosed those instances of non-reporting to NHTSA and tried to follow up, by requesting confirmation that these claims should have been submitted to the agency, and “what actions the agency plans to take.” After a Freedom of Information Act Request only turned up a draft copy of the agency’s EWR Data Analysis Plan from 2008, with page 6 missing, SRS appealed the response – which was denied. SRS sued the agency in federal court and received a few emails between NHTSA and Harmony. Nothing on Tireco. No written policies.

The emails we received between Michael Noah, vice-president of Harmony, and various NHTSA officials show that the agency did contact Harmony and remind company officials about their reporting obligations. At first, Noah tried to argue that he didn’t have to report the claims, because his investigation showed that they did not demonstrate that the safety seats contained a defect. (This is irrelevant to EWR reporting regulations.) In July 2013, NHTSA staff walked Noah through the process. And, after one rejected submission, Harmony correctly submitted four EWR death and injury claims for the second quarter of 2013 and Noah thanked them for their guidance and advice.

Problem solved. Harmony, having been shown the error of its ways, is sufficiently chastened and joins the community of responsible manufacturers who dutifully fulfill their EWR obligations. Well, that’s how the story ends in Friedman’s world. In the real world, Harmony has not filed a claim since. The company’s only submission ever is for the second quarter of 2013. 

Consequently, we doubt the existence of stern letters reminding manufacturers of their obligations. The “as appropriate” phrase Friedman used to describe NHTSA’s application of penalties for non-reporting is agency-speak for “there is no policy.” 

And, the agency apparently determines that a penalty is in order at a Halley’s Comet-like frequency. For example, Friedman cited the $100,000 fine imposed in 2009 on motorcycle manufacturer Piaggio for failing to report EWR claims. But, this penalty also covered the failure to launch a timely recall in 2005. If ODI hadn’t investigated fuel tank failures in the RST 1000 Futura motorcycles, it’s likely that the agency would never have noticed that Piaggio hadn’t submitted EWR reports, and even if it did notice – wouldn’t care.

EWR, Mercedes, and Seat Heaters

The Safety Record has done some simple math operations and, armed with nothing more than a calculator and NHTSA’s EWR database, we decided to follow up on a tip that Mercedes was under-reporting some claims. 

Indeed, from 2003 to 2013, Mercedes only reported 17 property damage claims. Seventeen in a decade. The automaker reported many more death and injury claims in that same time period – 520. Does that seem plausible? People who own these fine expensive products of German engineering don’t report their property damage claims?

Then, as The Safety Record tallied the claims from year to year, we noticed something odd. From 2003-2011, Mercedes death and injury claims averaged about 30 a year. Then in 2012, death and injury claims rocketed to 78, and in 2013, exploded again to 175. What was that about? It’s not easy to find out – not just from the EWR reports. They contain only the faintest outlines of information – vehicle year, make, model, the VIN, the date and location of the incident and the components involved. 

There is no detail regarding how components failed. For example, “airbags” is by far the most tagged component in EWR claims, but we don’t know from the EWR data whether this is a claim of non-deployment, as in a GM ignition problem that turns off the airbag, or an inadvertent deployment or one that sprays you with shrapnel, as in a Takata airbag that deployed in a fender-bender and took out the driver’s eye.  EWR only requires manufacturers to report component categories – and those categories aren’t granular enough to more specifically identify issues on their own.    

But some things do stand out, and when The Safety Record started reading the EWR reports, we found a sizeable number of component fields populated with the words seat, electrical and fire, or some combination thereof. In 2012 and 2013 as many as 69 death and injury claims out of 253 were somehow related to these component failures, and all 10 of the property damage claims Mercedes reported in 2012 and 2013 were fire-related – 100 percent of property damage complaints, which we know are vastly under-reported.

So we turned to NHTSA’s VOQ (complaint) database to see what drivers were telling NHTSA about seats, electrical and fire. A simple search for Mercedes model years 2005-2012 and the word “heater” found 38 complaints from Mercedes drivers, going back as far as 2008 – primarily mentioning Mercedes models from the 2006-2008 model years, but also those of more recent vintage, reporting that seat heaters were malfunctioning to the point of catching fire, with real flames and smoke, burning holes in seats, clothing and people. One driver experienced a crash in May 2008, after the passenger seat of her 2007 Mercedes ML350 caught fire as the vehicle was underway at 50 mph: “the smoke distracted her and caused her to lose control on the vehicle and crash into the median” (ODI 10228723). The most recent complaint came into the agency on October 20, 2014. The narratives go something like these:

The driver seat caught on fire due to a malfunctioning seat heater. A whole the size of a dime burned through the seat and the flame burned a hole into the coat of the vehicle's driver. (ODI 10649117)

The contact owns a 2006 Mercedes Benz ML350. The contact stated that the seat warmer overheated and caused the coils to burn through. The contact mentioned that she sustained second degree burns. The vehicle was taken to the dealer. The technician diagnosed that the seat heater had malfunctioned and the seat needed to be replaced. The manufacturer was made aware of the failure. The vehicle was not repaired. The failure and current mileage was 86,000. (ODI 10562938)

While driving turned on driver side seat heater. Less than 1 minute after I felt burning on my back, I pulled to the side and jumped out of vehicle. Smoke was filling car and jacket was on fire. Patted jacket out and found burn hole through jacket into sweater. After smoke cleared I saw driver seat was burned through. I was lucky this occurred on a side street at 20mph and not on a highway with posted speed of 65mph. Factory told me repair cost may not be covered since car is out of warranty, however local dealership made repair at no cost. I was not aware of the seat heater problem before, but now have researched and found it to be disturbing that no corrective measures have been taken to fix this seat fire. *tr (ODI 10557714)

Yes, “disturbing” is a good word to describe what has happened: Nothing. 

In April 2008, NHTSA opened a brief Preliminary Evaluation into seat heater fires affecting the 2007 Mercedes M-class, based on six crashes and four fires. But the investigation was closed after five months, because, according to the Closing Resume:

The data disclose few complaints and warranty reports concerning this issue. None of the “fire” reports involved open flame, but were thermal incidents in which the seat cushion sustained discoloration or a hole burned in the seat cover. 

As a result, Mercedes has not issued a recall to replace the seat heaters, which apparently start failing anywhere from one to seven years after the manufacture date, injuring occupants and creating dangerous driving conditions. And NHTSA, with its sophisticated data mining techniques, thorough review of EWR data, and its attention to the problem of under-reporting, complete with stern letters and civil fines:

  • Has not noticed that Mercedes isn’t reporting all property damage claims by a factor of a lot.
  • Has not sent a stern letter to Mercedes reminding it of its obligation to report all property damage claims.
  • Has not fined Mercedes for failing to report all property damage claims.
  • Did not notice during its 2008 ODI investigation of seat heater fires that Mercedes was under-reporting property damage claims. The automaker filed only one fire-related property damage claim in 2008.
  • Has not noticed the distinct and unusual seat heater-fire defect trend that not only continued, but actually got worse since it closed its investigation in September 2008.
  • Or has noticed, but decided that your seat catching on fire, filling the occupant compartment with smoke, burning the seat, your pants, and your gluteus maximus while driving is not a safety problem that requires further intervention by the regulator.

 See how EWR works in the real world?

The Real Story of EWR

Friedman began his letter to Senators Markey and Blumenthal with the agency’s boilerplate declaration of its pure intentions: “Our mission at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is safety, and we take these issues seriously.”

NHTSA’s got a resource problem, no doubt. But, they also have a culture problem that is at least as large, if not larger, than its resource problem. The agency resents the meddling of outsiders, be it information about a GM ignition defect from a plaintiff’s lawyer – who NHTSA officials discourteously blow off, only to find themselves the subjects of many unflattering news stories; be it a safety advocate pointing out that death and injury claims are not being reported – who they force to file lawsuits in federal court to get answers to  simple questions; or be it Congress imposing an statistical tool on the agency –which it blows off by not auditing EWR regularly under some quality control procedure to ensure participation, and then ignoring both violators and the defect trends that crawl out of the swamp of broad component categories.

As far as we can discern, everything at NHTSA, is an “as appropriate” case. Piaggio –a small manufacturer of motorcycles – gets clipped $100,000 for non-reporting and an untimely recall for a fuel leak, based on 11 complaints and no injuries. (Did some DOT higher-up own a Piaggio?) But a major manufacturer like Mercedes can report virtually no property damage claims quarter after quarter, and allow its seat heaters to catch fire and burn occupants with impunity.

Bill Haddon, a physician who authored the Haddon Matrix, the pre-eminent injury prevention paradigm and NHTSA’s first administrator, is rolling over in his grave.

In our last blog, we asked: When will someone seriously address NHTSA’s staffing levels, defect surveillance and recall management processes and procedures? NHTSA, a self-proclaimed public health agency could use a seasoned epidemiologist who can lead and instill the types of practices and policies that provide real consumer protection. 

We repeat: When will someone seriously address NHTSA’s staffing levels, defect surveillance and recall management processes and procedures? NHTSA, a self-proclaimed public health agency could use a seasoned epidemiologist who can lead and instill the types of practices and policies that provide real consumer protection. 

NHTSA has to keep telling anyone who will listen how much it cares about safety – because its actions say otherwise.

Takata Airbag Defect Explodes into Crisis

This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a Consumer Advisory urging “owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags.” The announcement was accompanied by an agency web page with an incomplete list of vehicles under recall, as well as mistakenly naming 14 GM models equipped with Autoliv airbags that were once recalled in 2002. The recalls, investigations and complaints look-up functions on its website were inoperable. Toyota announced that it would disable defective airbags in some affected vehicles until replacement parts were available and Acting Administrator David Friedman told The New York Times concurred, under the logic that a vehicle with no airbag was better than one that might spray the occupants with shrapnel upon deployment. 

At this point, 7.8 million vehicles in the U.S. are under recall. The inflator defect has been tied to reportedly 139 injuries and three – possibly four – deaths.  Congress has come calling. Three U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Florida’s Bill Nelson and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey have sent stern letters to NHTSA decrying the latest regional recalls. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is threatening to hold a hearing.
Once again, the agency is in crisis mode, and despite NHTSA’s description of the inflator defect recalls as “going as far back as 18 months ago,” the recall history stretches back eight years, when Honda issued its first recall for Takata “airbag inflators that could produce excessive internal pressure.” And the defect history goes back 14 years to April 2000, when according to Recall Notice 13V136,  some air bag propellant wafers manufactured between then and September 11, 2002 at Takata's Moses Lake, Washington plant may have been produced with inadequate compaction force.
Since then, there have been five more rounds of recalls in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. And in the last two years, the Takata airbag defect has spread to nine other manufacturers. The defect is not an artifact of some long ago manufacturing process – the most recently recalled vehicles were 2013 Chevrolet Cruze vehicles (which GM and Takata claim is unrelated). And, it’s likely that even at these numbers, not all of the affected vehicles have been recalled, nor is it merely the result of exposure to heat and humidity. One of the most recent complaints to NHTSA involved a 2010 Honda Civic from Reisterstown, Maryland. According to the VOQ: 
While driving at low speeds, the driver side air bag and ceiling air bag deployed unexpectedly. The contact suffered an injury to the face and the driver seat was fractured in half by a metal fragment. The vehicle was not diagnosed or repaired. The manufacturer stated that the vehicle was not included in NHTSA campaign number…
Ultimately, the problem appears to be rooted in Takata’s continuing quality control problems at its manufacturing facilities. The crisis, however, is rooted in manufacturers’ lax attitudes toward locating consumers when it’s recall time, and NHTSA’s lack of process and recall management. This week, Friedman was apologizing for all of the website malfunctions and misinformation, but he declared that NHTSA “had identified the problem.”
A look back at the earliest Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance reports shows that Honda supplied almost no information about the defect, what little it did supply turned out to be incorrect. The automaker neglected to mention that at least some of those “unusual deployments” resulted in injuries. For its part, NHTSA, until very recently, has displayed little curiosity as Honda and Takata offered shifting explanations for the rolling recalls. Perhaps the apologies should have started earlier.    
NHTSA’s division of recall management has been breathing a little fire lately at manufacturers who submit Part 573s that don’t acknowledge that a recall is a recall and a defect is a defect. And, recently The Safety Record was shocked – and pleased – to read an eight-page chronology submitted with a GM Defect and Noncompliance Notice. But, for far too many years, the Division of Recall Management displayed a distinct “whatevs” attitude toward the documentation of defects and a manufacturer’s willingness to actually concede that filing a Defect and Noncompliance Notice meant, on its face, that there was a defect. And the agency is still far from showing competence when it comes to trolling quarterly reports for terrible repair rates and forcing manufacturers to put a little sweat into reaching out to vehicle owners. 
“It’s well-known that automakers do a lousy job notifying customers – especially on cars out of warranty often relying on outdated owner information,” says SRS President Sean Kane.  “It took an act of Congress to force NHTSA to have a VIN recall lookup tool which was only released months ago and the agency posted the wrong vehicles affected by the Takata recalls in its consumer advisory.  Once again consumers are bearing the brunt of these failures.”
The Timeline
The Safety Record has been examining the public record on this defect since April 2013, and the information has been scant, misleading, and doled out sparingly. The bottom line: the production problems go back to 2000; Honda got its first complaint of a rupture that caused an injury in 2004, but did not report that in 2008, when it launched its first recall. If either is to be believed, Honda/Takata have been collecting and studying fractured airbag inflators for seven years. The pair, along with the more recent automakers dragged into the recalls, have supplied no fewer than eight different root cause explanations for the defect:
  • Propellant wafers with inadequate compaction force;
  • Propellant wafers exposed to elevated moisture during the manufacturing process, which, when coupled with thermal cycling in vehicles over time cause the propellant density to decline;
  • The process of processing the propellant into a wafer on a specific Stokes high-compression machines;
  • The handling of the propellant during manufacturing; 
  • Propellant wafers with lower material density; 
  • Prolonged exposure to heat and humidity over the lifecycle of the vehicle;
  • Airbag inflator manufactured with “an incorrect part.”
The reasons for the ever expanding recall population are similarly confused. The information coming from the supplier and automakers has hopscotched from one instance of bad record-keeping to another. Among the explanations:
  • Confusion over one manufacturing processes that did not automatically verify all propellant as being within specification;
  • An unreliable method of sampling production meant that Takata could not absolutely assure that the inflators in the recall population met all production criteria;
  • Some number of potentially affected replacement service part driver's airbag modules had been sold through Honda dealers, but could not be accounted for using the controlled parts system;
  • Honda/Takata’ discovery that propellant produced during 2001 -2002 could have been manufactured out of specification without the manufacturing processes correctly identifying and removing it.
It is increasingly difficult to believe that Takata knows exactly which vehicles received a bad inflator manufactured within a specific time period on a specific machine, and that the root cause has been definitively identified.
Here’s a much condensed timeline:
2000 – Some air bag propellant wafers manufactured between this date and September 11, 2002 at Takata's Moses Lake, Washington plant may have been produced with inadequate compaction force.
2001 – Some propellant wafers used in air bag inflators manufactured between October 4  and October 31, 2002 at Takata's Monclova, Mexico plant may have been exposed to uncontrolled moisture.
2004 – In May Honda receives first complaint related to airbag inflator ruptures and shares information with Takata, but doesn’t report it to NHTSA until September 2009 in response to a Recall Query.
2006 – Mexican news reports that Takata’s air bag plant in Monclova Mexico was rocked by violent explosions in containers loaded with propellant, leaving at least a dozen workers injured.
2007 – Honda receives two more complaints and a lawsuit related to airbag inflator ruptures. Honda of America Manufacturing (HAM) initiates an investigation. Later claims to NHTSA that this is the first such report. 
2008 – Honda starts to collect parts from suspect propellant lots and analyzes them. The “unusual airbag deployment” complaint total rises to five. In October, Takata Holdings makes a presentation to Honda about inflator issue. In November, Honda completes the investigation and launches Recall 08V259. Honda of America Manufacturing continues its investigation for returned inflators of the recall. 
2009 – Honda receives more complaints about ruptured airbags. One is the death of Ashley Nicole Parham of Oklahoma on May 27 in a 2001 Honda Accord.  Another death occurs on Dec. 24. Eve-Guddi Ratore allegedly dies in a minor crash in which the airbag deployed and the inflator ruptured in her 2001 Honda Accord. (This death does not appear in any of Honda’s recall submissions to NHTSA) By June, Honda decides that recall 08V-593 should be expanded, but does not explain why. In July, after the ninth complaint, Honda launches Recall 09V259, which expands the range of 2001 Honda Civic and Accord vehicles. In November, NHTSA’s Recall Management Division finally takes notice and sends Honda an information request to determine why vehicles in the 2009 recall weren’t included in 2008. Honda and Takata identified the process of pressing the propellant into a wafer on specific high-compression machines as the cause of the ruptures.
2010 – More Honda investigations and another recall. Recall 10V041 includes other vehicles because Honda is not able to rely on the method of sampling production in use at that time to absolutely assure that the inflators in the recall population meet all production criteria. In April, Kristy Williams is severely injured by ruptured airbag in a 2001 Honda Civic. Six months after opening the Recall Query, NHTSA accepts Takata and Honda’s explanations and closes RQ09-004. NHTSA Recall Management Division finds that there is insufficient evidence to determine if Honda and Takata failed to meet their recall timeliness obligations.
2011 – In March, Honda discovers that it can’t account for all of the bad inflators that got into dealers’ replacement parts inventory, and decides to notify owners of all 833, 255vehicles in which the 2,430 affected driver's airbag modules could have been installed and launches. More complaints, More internal investigations.  Toyota receives field report of a rupture from a vehicle from the Japan market and asks Takata to investigate. Honda reports alleged rupture of a passenger airbag inflator occurred in Puerto Rico, and decides to  expand the VIN range of suspect driver's airbag inflator modules for Recall 11V260 to include those that could have been assembled with mixed propellant lot production.
2012 – More Honda/Takata investigations; more field reports from Toyota
2013 – NHTSA and Honda meet to discuss the ongoing investigation. Takata informs Toyota that some of the propellant wafers found within the additionally recovered inflators were cracked, possibly due to lower material density. Takata informs Nissan, Mazda and BMW that it was investigating a front passenger air bag inflator quality issue affecting air bags. Separately, Takata tells Honda “of another potential concern related to airbag inflator production that could affect the performance of these airbag modules.”  In April, Honda completes the investigation and launches Recall 13V132.  The automaker also learns of a 13th incident – without injury. In the spring and summer, Mazda, Toyota, BMW and Nissan issue recalls as well.
2014 – In June, the Office of Defects Investigation opens a Preliminary Evaluation into airbag inflator ruptures affecting 1.09 million Takata components, based on six complaints of improper deployment or rupture that occurred in high heat and humidity climates of Florida and Puerto Rico. BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Mazda, Nissan and Honda agree to conduct field action. In June, GM adds the more than 29,000 2013-2104 Chevrolet Cruze vehicles to the list of airbag inflator recalls for being manufactured with an unidentified “incorrect part.”
What’s Next?
Takata’s responses to NHTSA’s 2009 Recall Query make for some interesting reading in 2014.
Takata told NHTSA back then that it had “not provided any air bag inflators that are the same or substantially similar to the inflators in vehicles covered by Recalls 08V-593 and 09V-259 to any customers other than Honda. The physical characteristics of the inflator housing used in the Honda vehicles subject to these recalls are unique to Honda.” 
This does not seem to be the case.
Takata also claimed a “policy of continuous review and continuous improvement of its production methods to improve quality and to increase efficiency.”  
This does not seem to have produced the results Takata hoped for.
Takata has used the propellant chemistry in the recalled Honda inflators in more than 100,000,000 air bag inflators sold to most major vehicle manufacturers over the past 10 years. 
This suggests that more recalls are in the offing.
Congress has been gathering the torches and pitchforks. An October 21 letter from Florida Senator William Nelson takes NHTSA to task for urging consumers to act “immediately,” without providing “actual information they can use to accomplish that task.”  He also pointed out that there are plenty of snowbirds with vehicles registered in cold weather states that spend substantial time in hot and humid climates. Yesterday, Sens. Markey and Blumenthal urged NHTSA to issue immediately a nationwide recall on all affected cars, regardless of where the vehicle is registered. All three called on manufacturers to provide rental cars at no cost to consumers if vehicles cannot be fixed immediately due to lack of replacement parts. 
So here we are, again, with the national press fighting for scoops and Congress clamoring for action, all borne on a rising tide of injuries, deaths and recalls. When will someone seriously address NHTSA’s staffing levels, defect surveillance and recall management processes and procedures? NHTSA, a self-proclaimed public health agency could use a seasoned epidemiologist who can lead and instill the types of practices and policies that provide real consumer protection. The GM ignition debacle isn’t even concluded, and the agency is already swamped in another fiasco.

NHTSA Seeks Input on Electronics Rule

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published a Federal Register Notice seeking comments on the possibility of writing regulations to ensure the safety of automotive electronics. The 10-page request for comments, satisfying a directive from the federal legislation known as MAP–21 to “complete an examination of the need for safety standards with regard to electronic systems in passenger motor vehicles,” would have been an excellent addition to Volume 54 of the Federal Register (published in 1989).

The notice, published in Volume 79, takes note of the sea-change in automotive systems over the last three and a half decades, enumerating the transformation with the kinds of statistics that emerged during the agency’s February 2010 assessment of Toyota Unintended Acceleration, but were ultimately deemed to have no connection to the defect:

“The first common use of automotive electronics dates back to 1970s and by 2009 a typical automobile featured over 100 microprocessors, 50 electronic control units, five miles of wiring and 100 million lines of code.”

The agency also takes note of the difficulties this presents:

“Over time, growth of electronics use has accelerated and this trend is expected to continue as the automotive industry develops and deploys even more advanced automated vehicle features. This trend results in increased complexities in the design, testing, and validation of automotive systems. Those complexities also raise general concerns in the areas of reliability, security, and safety.”


“Growing system complexity and abundance of design variants even within one manufacturer over model years and across classes of vehicles pose general concerns over whether existing processes can ensure their functional safety. Further, anomalies associated with electronic systems—including those related to software programming, intermittent electronics hardware malfunctions, and effects of electromagnetic disturbances—may not leave physical evidence, and hence are difficult to investigate without a record of data from the electronic systems.”

NHTSA announced its intention of determining “whether there are emerging gaps in the functional safety assurance processes of motor vehicles.”

The Safety Record would argue that the concerns about and the gaps around the functional safety and reliability of today’s automotive electronics are present, specific and abundant. For example, NHTSA talks about the ways electronics make vehicles safer, and mentions electronic stability control. There’s no doubt that it can save a vehicle from a loss-of-control crash. In 2007, the agency published a Final Rule establishing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 126, requiring that passenger cars, multi-purpose passenger vehicles and trucks and buses with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of 10,000 pounds or less implement electronic stability control, with full fleet implementation by 2012. According to the agency’s last analysis, published in 2011, “ESC was associated with a 6-percent decrease in the likelihood that a vehicle would be involved in any police-reported crash and an 18-percent reduction in the probability that a vehicle would be involved in a fatal crash. The effects become more pronounced when you look at the effect on light trucks: 7 percent overall crash reduction; 20 percent reduction in fatal crashes. ESC reduced first-event rollover scenarios by 56 percent in passenger cars and by 74 percent in LTVs. Fatal impacts with fixed objects are reduced by 47 percent in passenger cars and 45 percent in LTVs.

But there was nothing in that Final Rule ensuring that ESC systems failed safely. So in March 2013, Honda was recalled 183,000 Honda Pilots for inadvertent braking caused by two separate malfunctions of its ESC system, called Vehicle Stability Assist. Honda blamed it on damaged capacitors on the electronic control unit (ECU) circuit board which “may be capable of applying a small amount of braking force for a fraction of a second, even if the brake pedal has not been applied by the driver.” Or, it could be caused by loose electrical ground connector fasteners, which could increase the electrical resistance in the system and send the wrong signal, leading to braking while the vehicle was underway.

Here’s how it played out in the field for Carrie Carvahlo, a Honda Pilot owner from Massachusetts. On October 10, 2010, Carvahlo was in the passenger seat of her 2005 Honda Pilot, with her friend at the wheel, when suddenly, “the car exhibited a very loud groan and the brakes engaged bringing the car to a dead stop in the middle of the road.  The vehicles behind her Pilot had to swerve to avoid hitting the car.  The driver had his foot on the accelerator the whole time but the brakes engaged on their own,” according to the complaint. A couple of minutes later, the Pilot’s brakes again engaged with no command from the driver. Carvahlo filed a Defect Petition, which eventually forced Honda to launch the recall.

NHTSA’s characterization of vague unease is belied by scores of recalls and investigations related to electronic defects. In 2011 The Safety Record examined 12 months of recalls to determine the prevalence of recalls related to electronic defects. After reviewing 722 recall campaigns, The Safety Record found that electronics recalls comprised more than a quarter; of those, 24 recall campaigns addressed software defects.

In October of that year, Nissan recalled 2004-2006 Armada, Titan, Infiniti QX56 and model year 2005-2006 Frontier, Pathfinder and Xterra vehicles, because of a compromised engine control module relay within the intelligent power distribution module. The automaker told NHTSA that a diode in the relay could allow silicon vapors to form, allowing silicon oxide to develop on the ECM relay contact, causing arcing. This, Nissan said, could lead to a sudden engine stall.

In November 2011, Volvo recalled more than 6,000 XC70, XC90 and S80 and S60vehicles within certain chassis ranges because the engine and transmission software calibration was so sensitive, the vehicle could suddenly stall after a stop, and go into a reduced power mode. Volvo had to update the software.

In the last 30 days, NHTSA listed three investigations related to electronic defects – low-speed UA in Toyota Corollas, loss of Electric Assisted Power Steering in Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ vehicles, and failures of the Totally Integrated Power Module (TIPM) installed in Chrysler SUVs, trucks, and vans.

In the last 30 days, there were several electronic recalls, among them:

  • General Motors recalled some 2013-2014 Cadillac XTS and MY 2013-2014 Chevrolet Impala vehicles which might have left the factory with the sensing and diagnostic module set to “manufacturing mode,” meaning that the vehicle's air bags would not deploy in the event of a crash.
  • Ford recalled MY 2013-2014 Ford C-Max and Fusion, and Lincoln MKZ vehicles because the coating on portions of the Restraint Control Module could crack, and when exposed to humidity could cause the circuits on the printed circuit board to short. It also recalled MY 2011-2013 Focus ST because insufficient compression in the engine wiring harness splices to the Manifold Absolute Pressure sensor could send incorrect signals to the powertrain control module (PCM), resulting in an engine stall.
  • Chrysler recalled some MY2013-2014 SRT Viper vehicles due to inaccurate seat position sensors, the frontal air bags may deploy with a lower velocity than designed for the actual seat position.

In response to the notice, Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies said “I would argue that NHTSA, instead of meeting the challenges posed by the difficulties in investigating intermittent electronic defects, has largely pretended that they don’t exist. In the Toyota Unintended Acceleration debacle, the agency cherry-picked data, twisted drivers’ testimony, dismissed physical evidence, and generally missed no opportunity to insist that UA was caused by mechanical interference or driver error.”

In 2007, ODI opened and quickly closed a Preliminary Evaluation into sudden unintended braking involving about 100,000 MY 2000-2001 Mercedes M-class vehicles, without taking any action. Mercedes dazzled ODI with a presentation in which the automaker simulated electrical faults in the yaw rate sensor and showed how “the ESP [Electronic Stability Program] system is programmed to diagnose electrical faults and that brake applications resulting from yaw rate sensor electrical faults are very short in duration (0.3 seconds or less) and don’t affect vehicle control or stability.” The Vehicle Research and Test Center was unable to duplicate the problem in a vehicle that had experienced multiple events, so the investigation was terminated.

Neither system had adequate fail-safes.

Two years ago, NHTSA attempted to upgrade the accelerator control standard by proposing that manufacturers be required to equip all vehicles with a brake override, which cuts throttle voltage in electronic throttle control (ETC) vehicles when the brakes and throttle are in conflict. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was in direct reaction to the Toyota UA crisis, but, the proposal merely codified manufacturers’ current designs, and noted that it was meant to address unintended accelerations caused by mechanical failures: component disconnections and pedal misapplication. It noted “allegations” of UAs with electronic causes, but ignored manufacturers’ own recalls for electronically-based UAs.

The agency, in posing a series of questions to the public, made (with no small irony) this admission:  “Functional safety assurance of modern automobiles requires a thorough understanding of electronic control systems’ design under a variety of scenarios.”

Among its inquiries:

  • Should the agency pursue alternative approaches to categorize and prioritize potential electronic control system hazards and impacts to support new standards?
  • What other automotive electronics should it consider in its research that could affect the electronics in the safety critical systems?
  • What performance-based tests, methods, and processes are now available for safety assurance of throttle, braking, steering, and motive power management?
  • What performance-based tests should the agency consider to ensure safe functionality of these types of automotive electronic control systems under all real-world conditions?
  • What methods are effective in identifying potential anomalous behavior associated with electronic components, systems, and communications reliably and quickly?
  • What strategies do current vehicles have for activating a ‘‘fail-safe’’ mode when critical problems are detected?
  • What types of problems are classified as ‘‘critical’’ and how does the vehicle detect these problems?
  • What state-of-the-art detection and fail-safe response methods should the agency be aware of and further assess?


Good questions, all. One hopes that the agency takes seriously the answers and suggestions from members of the public who are not also members of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The latter has shown no appetite for regulations.  In 1995, for the first time since FMVSS 124 was first established in 1972, the agency proposed to gather information in advance of an upgrade, to explicitly state its applicability to new types of engines and throttle controls, and to add a new test procedure to address different types of powertrain technology. According to the 2002 NPRM, manufacturers were not interested in helping:  “In general, the comments of vehicle and engine manufacturers did not address the specific questions in the notice. Instead, they voiced a preference for rescinding the standard altogether, suggesting that market forces and litigation pressure are sufficient to assure fail-safe performance without a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.”

Automakers have proven to be unreliable narrators of their own systems and ODI has proven to be all too credulous of their stories. Toyota, for example, claimed in multiple responses to UA investigations that its electronic throttle control system could not fail without the diagnostic sensing system taking note. That assertion had no basis in fact – as shown by Dr. David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University in his examinations for Safety Research & Strategies, and further detailed by software expert Michael Barr, who examined Toyota’s source code, line-by-line for Bookout v. Toyota. The case involved a September 2007 crash that seriously injured the driver, Jean Bookout, and killed her passenger, Barbara Schwarz. Bookout was exiting Interstate Highway 69 in Oklahoma in a 2005 Camry when she realized that she could not stop her car. She pulled the parking brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark from right rear tire, and a 50-foot skid mark from the left. She could not stop the Camry, which flew across the road at the ramp’s bottom, crashing into an embankment.

Barr concluded that Toyota’s software system as defective and dangerous, riddled with bugs and gaps in its failsafes that led to the root cause of the crash. Among the many deficiencies: possible bit flips, task deaths that would disable the failsafes, memory corruption, single-point failures, inadequate stack overflow and buffer overflow, single-fault containment regions, thousands of global variables. Barr called Toyota’s safety architecture “a house of cards.”

More recently, we give you the case of Bristol, RI Corolla owner Robert Ruginis, whose wife experienced a low-speed UA while parking the vehicle that resulted in a minor crash. Ruginis, unlike hundreds of other Toyota owners who suffered crashes in similar circumstances, was lucky enough to obtain an Event Data Recorder readout which affirmed Kathy Ruginis’ account. In the five seconds before the airbag made the decision to fire, the data showed that there was no input from the accelerator, but braking, and a doubling of speed and rpms. Somehow, with nothing touching the accelerator, the Corolla experienced a surge, despite braking. The engine control module – like its manufacturer – was silent on this contradiction.

Comments are due to NHTSA Docket by December 8, 2014.  Submit here

[More on functional safety in vehicles]

Senate Holds Hearings on NHTSA and House Releases Staff Report on GM Ignition Switch

Another big day for NHTSA as the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance will hold a hearings today at 2:30 pm titled “Oversight of and Policy Considerations for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” chaired by Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Earlier today House Committee on Energy and Commerce released its Staff Report on the GM ignition switch crises. 

The Safety Record hasn’t unpacked all of the details of the House report, but we thought a quick comparison was in order: 

Safety Research & Strategies June 13, 2011 presentation to the National Academy of Sciences:

"Absent regulation and investigators with detailed and independent understanding of current technology, the crises will continue to occur…" (slide 26, “Toyota Unintended Acceleration: Learning From Crises and Moving Forward Sean Kane Safety Research & Strategies, Inc)


House Staff report on GM Ignition Switch and NHTSA:

"As manufacturers began implementing new advanced air bag systems, NHTSA’s safety defect investigators’ understanding of the systems failed to keep pace with the evolution of the technology. Critically, NHTSA investigators were completely unaware of the link between power mode and the air bag system until the GM recall in 2014."

(U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND COMMERCE Staff Report on the GM Ignition Switch Recall: Review of NHTSA September 16, 2014, Page 34)


Watch today’s Senate hearing at 2:30 pm EDT here.