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Senator Asks NHTSA for Answers on Toyota Unintended Acceleration

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NASA Clears Toyota for Takeoff

Caption (from “NASA engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center examined the Toyota automobile models implicated in episodes of sudden unintended acceleration. So did engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Verdict: no design flaws in the Toyota electronic throttle control. There were no electronic causes of the acceleration episodes.”

After being contacted by whistleblowers, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to answer several questions about what has caused Toyota’s unintended acceleration (UA) problems. The whistleblowers gave him information suggesting the NHTSA and NASA investigations of the UA were “too narrow,” Grassley’s letter (PDF) to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says.

Grassley, a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asks the NHTSA, among other things, to give its opinion on whether “tin whiskers” could be causing UA. “Tin whiskers” is a term for a phenomenon, he writes, in which electronically conductive, crystalline structures of tin sometimes grow from surfaces where tin (especially electroplated tin) is used as a final finish. As the Associated Press writes in The Washington Post, “The microscopic whiskers can sprout from solder on electronic devices, changing the flow of electricity and causing glitches.”

In a CNN article, Michael Martinez writes:

In Grassley’s letter dated July 12 and released publicly Thursday, the senator asks Strickland why his agency relied on NASA engineers and whether the agency lacks ‘the sufficient expertise to conduct such investigations and why.’

Said Grassley in the letter: ‘This is a serious issue. From 2000 to 2010, NASA concluded there were 9,698 identified UA (unintended acceleration) customer complaints and NHTSA concedes that this is likely only a fraction of the actual incidents of UA: ‘NHTSA assumes that not all incidents are reported and that, accordingly, each complaint represents a greater number of unreported real-world failures.”

The whistleblowers also gave Grassley documentation about NHTSA and NASA investigations of the Toyota vehicles, including one NASA report that said: “Because proof that the (electronic throttle-control systems) caused the reported (unintended accelerations) was not found does not mean it could not occur,” Martinez reports. Martinez goes on to write that the Department of Transportation said a federal investigation last year into possible causes of the UA in Toyota cars found no fault with the electronic throttle systems. “So far,” Martinez writes, “there are three known causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles: improperly installed floor mats, sticky pedals and driver error.”

Martinez quotes Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons as telling CNN in an email that there is no data indicating that tin whiskers are more prone to occur in Toyota vehicles than any others:

‘Further, no one has ever found a single real-world example of tin whiskers causing an unintended acceleration event, nor have they put forth any evidence of unintended acceleration occurring in a Toyota vehicle because of tin whiskers forming inside an accelerator pedal position sensor,’ Lyons said.

‘Toyota’s systems are designed to reduce the risk that tin whiskers will form in the first place and multiple robust fail-safe systems are in place to counter any effects on the operation of our vehicles in the highly unlikely event that they do form and connect to adjacent circuitry,’ Lyons said.

The Associated Press article notes that Toyota’s acceleration problems “waned” for more than a year until last month, when NHTSA asked the carmaker to recall 154,000 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450H SUVs from the 2010 model year because, NHTSA said, floor mats could cause UA. The agency told owners to remove driver’s side mats until the problems were repaired. In 2010 and 2011, Associated Press writes, Toyota was fined $48.8 million for failing to alert government regulators promptly about safety problems.

In his letter, Grassley asked that NHTSA respond to his questions no later than July 26. His questions are:

1. Why did NHTSA rely on NASA engineers to investigate UA in vehicles?
2. How often does NHTSA utilize other agencies to perform tests and investigations and why?
3. Do NHTSA personnel lack the sufficient expertise to conduct such investigations and why?
4. Did NHTSA provide direction to the NASA investigation team? Please describe and provide documentation for any direction given, including but not limited to: initial theories for investigation, required completion timelines, any testing methodologies, identified units for test, and any hardware provided for analysis.
5. What factors contributed to the April 12, 2012 NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking]?
6. What is the NHTSA position on ‘tin whiskers’ as a potential cause of UA? What is the basis of this position? Please provide all information related to ‘tin whiskers’ arising from testing.
7. Of the 9,698 suspected UA complaints, how many vehicles were inspected for the presence of ‘tin whiskers’? What, if any, other components of the ETCS [Electronic Throttle Control Systems] were inspected for the presence of ‘tin whiskers’?
8. Last year, NHTSA asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study broader questions related to UA. Did the NAS evaluate the impact of ‘tin whiskers’ on UA? Please provide the entire report, findings, and suggestions.

Image by Mike Licht, (Mike Licht), used under its Creative Commons license.


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