Occupational Health & Safety

More Auto Oversight Needed After Toyota Sudden Acceleration Problems, Panel Says

The report recommends that NHTSA establish a standing technical advisory panel of individuals with backgrounds central to the design, development, and safety assurance of automotive electronics systems.

The increasing role of electronic systems in automobiles creates new safety oversight challenges that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) must address, says a new report from the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board.

NHTSA will need to become more familiar with how manufacturers design safety and security into electronics systems, identify and investigate system faults that may leave no physical trace, and respond convincingly when concerns arise about system safety, the study says.

The Research Council's study was requested in the aftermath of the 2009-2010 reports of sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles. NHTSA attributed these events to drivers pressing the gas pedal by mistake and to two other issues—pedals sticking or becoming entrapped by floormats—remedied in subsequent safety recalls. Although NHTSA concluded that errant electronic throttle control systems (ETCs) were not a plausible cause, persistent questions led the agency to ask for further investigation by NASA, which supported NHTSA's original conclusion. The agency also commissioned the Research Council study for advice in handling future issues involving the safe performance of automotive electronics.

The Research Council report finds NHTSA's decision to close its investigation of Toyota's ETC justified on the basis of the agency's investigations. However, it is "troubling" that NHTSA could not convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics, the Research Council said.

"It's unrealistic to expect NHTSA to hire and maintain personnel who have all of the specialized technical and design knowledge relevant to this constantly evolving field," said Louis Lanzerotti, Distinguished Research Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "A standing advisory committee is one way NHTSA can interact with industry and with technical experts in electronics to keep abreast of these technologies and oversee their safety. Neither the automotive industry, NHTSA, nor motorists can afford a recurrence of something like the unintended acceleration controversy."

The report recommends that NHTSA establish a standing technical advisory panel of individuals with backgrounds central to the design, development, and safety assurance of automotive electronics systems. Composed of experts on software and systems engineering, human factors, and electronics hardware, the panel should be consulted on relevant technical matters that arise throughout the agency's vehicle safety programs, including regulatory reviews, defect investigation processes, and research needs assessments.

NHTSA rules require that vehicles have certain safety features and capabilities, but do not prescribe how manufacturers meet these standards. The manufacturer has the primary responsibility for designing electronics systems and for testing them to ensure that they work as intended.

NHTSA issued the following statement in response to the Research Council’s report and recommendations:

"In keeping with the agency's core safety mission and to better understand the causes and ways to address unintended acceleration in passenger vehicles, NHTSA commissioned an independent panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a comprehensive review into electronic control systems and the safety assurance processes used by manufacturers. NHTSA is reviewing the report's recommendations and will carefully consider them.

"NHTSA has already taken steps to strengthen its expertise in electronic control systems while expanding research in this area—and the agency has considerable experience dealing with vehicle electronics issues in its research, rulemaking, and enforcement programs. But, NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe, including research to assess potential safety concerns and help ensure the reliability of electronic control systems in vehicles. The agency will also further refine its strategic plan to address any potential technical and policy issues."

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