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Report: NHTSA Needs More Electronics Expertise

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Transportation Research Board logoA study released on Wednesday concludes that the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA) needs more electronics expertise in order to evaluate electronics-related vehicle safety complaints. The report, titled “The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics: Insights from Unintended Acceleration,” was conducted by the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board (TRB), a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. NHTSA requested the study after Toyota recalled many cars in 2009 and 2010 because of problems with sudden acceleration.

The report recommends that NHTSA add technical help, refine its investigative techniques, and ask automakers to put “black boxes” in vehicles to record data in car accidents. The TRB also suggests that the NHTSA create an advisory panel of experts who can help with regulatory reviews and investigations of specific vehicles, reports Bill Vlasic in The New York Times.

Louis Lanzerotti, chairman of the committee that wrote the report, 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. Neither the automotive industry, NHTSA, nor motorists can afford a recurrence of something like the unintended acceleration controversy.”

As Sharon Silke Carty writes for Huff Post Business:

The report found that although those issues weren’t caused by Toyota’s electronic systems, the agency still needs more expertise in this area. Because of this lack of expertise, the agency was not able to adequately convince the public that electronics were not to blame for Toyota’s problems, according to the report.

Some safety watchers still believe, however, that electronics is the root cause of the accidents and deaths associated with unintentional acceleration. […]

Over the past two decades, automakers have increasingly been loading up cars with electronics, from high-tech radios and DVD players to systems that rely on electronics for acceleration and braking. All those electronics can interfere with one another, potentially causing problems. Simple issues could include the shutting down of navigation systems and radio interference, while complex problems might involve cars turning off or accelerating out of control.

NHTSA said it has already taken steps to strengthen its expertise in electronic control systems while expanding research in that area. “And the agency has considerable experience dealing with vehicle electronics issues in its research, rulemaking, and enforcement programs,” it said in a statement. “But, NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe.”

Vlasic writes:

One auto safety consulting firm, Safety Research and Strategies, expressed disappointment with the committee report because it had reviewed the agency efforts rather than holding its own investigation into the Toyota incidents.

‘It is an incredible assertion for them to say that N.H.T.S.A. is not equipped to deal with electronics, but that they were justified in closing this investigation,’ said Sean E. Kane, a founder of the firm, based in Rehoboth, Mass.

The Huff Post quotes Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore as saying, “To date, all of the scientific evidence has confirmed what millions of Toyota drivers prove each day — that they can depend on their vehicles for safe and reliable transportation.”

Image by Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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