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THE GOODS : Can Stray Signals Affect Electronics in Car Systems?


As the electronic components of automobiles grew throughout the 1980s, reports of unexplained sudden acceleration multiplied rapidly.

Drivers said their car engines would suddenly surge and the car would lunge forward at high speed without a foot on the accelerator. There were reports of serious injuries.

Auto makers concluded the problem resulted from confusion--when drivers would push on the accelerator thinking it was the brake. Nonetheless, the reports of sudden acceleration on specific models grew from dozens to hundreds. Audi sales were seriously hurt by the reports.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted eight formal investigations into different models and concluded in March, 1989, that there was no evidence a defect could cause sudden acceleration, agency spokesman Tim Hurd said.

But the reports continue, and some critics still believe sudden acceleration is caused by defects in the electronic systems and computers that control modern cars' engines, cruise controls and transmissions. And some critics continue to press an offensive.

Paul Roupinian of Rancho Palos Verdes began his fight with Nissan in 1987 over what he regards as a sudden-acceleration incident involving his 300ZX.

Roupinian has filed three petitions with the safety administration, all denied, and has filed a suit against Nissan in Los Angeles Superior Court. Earlier this year, Roupinian testified before Congress on the issue.

Nissan officials say the company examined Roupinian's car and found no defects.

The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C. consumer group, continues to receive reports and rejects the explanation that all sudden acceleration results from driver error.

The center believes the safety administration has failed to fully investigate theories that complex electronic systems on cars are susceptible to acting in unintended ways.

They cite the concern of airlines that stray electronic signals could disrupt flight and communications systems. Airlines require passengers to shut off electronic gear at takeoff and landing. The U.S. Department of Justice joined a private whistle-blower suit last month charging that General Electric made false statements to the government when it certified its aircraft engines were not vulnerable to electronic interference.

Roupinian's petition and lawsuit allege Nissan electronics are vulnerable to stray electronic signals as well.

The sudden-acceleration claims did prompt auto makers to put shift locks on new cars. These require drivers to put their foot on the brake before shifting out of park. That has sharply reduced the number of claims, but not eliminated them. Millions of existing cars have no shift locks, leaving the issue open.

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