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Research Council Recommends Aggressive Steps to Address Auto Electronics-Related Safety Concerns

January 18, 2012

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

As these electronics systems become more complex, interconnected and capable, safety assurance demands will grow, as will the need to maintain public confidence in their safe performance. 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 report concludes.

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 was 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, according to researchers.

Relative to the newer electronics systems being deployed and developed, ETCs are simple and mature technologies. To respond effectively and confidently to claims of defects in the more complex electronic systems, both in present-day and future vehicles, NHTSA will require additional specialized technical expertise, according to the report.

"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."

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