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."


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. In addition to setting and enforcing safety rules, one of NHTSA's main roles is to spot and investigate safety defects that escape the automotive manufacturers' own safety assurance processes and to order safety recalls when necessary.

The report recommends a strategic planning process to guide the agency's fulfillment of these critical responsibilities as cars become more technologically complex. A strategic plan that engages top NHTSA leadership and defines the resources and capabilities required by the agency will help balance the mandate to be both proactive about automotive electronics and responsive to other safety priorities, according to the report. In the future, the possibility of electronics leading to increasingly autonomous vehicles presents a new set of safety challenges and will demand even more agency planning and foresight.

The report also recommends that NHTSA conduct a comprehensive review of its Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) to determine the specific capabilities needed to monitor and investigate flaws in electronics-intensive vehicles. NHTSA's research program could assist ODI in finding ways to improve consumer complaint reports and other data that the office relies on to identify safety defects in vehicles and to assess their possible causes.

The report evaluates a number of NHTSA's rule-making and research initiatives, including the installation of event data recorders (EDRs) on all automobiles to inform safety investigations. EDRs should be commonplace in all new vehicles, the report concurs. It also endorses NHTSA's plan to conduct research in areas such as layouts for gas and brake pedals and intuitive designs for keyless ignition systems. It recommends that this study be a precursor to a broader human factors research initiative in collaboration with the automotive industry to ensure that electronics systems and drivers interact safely. 

The study was supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.