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NHTSA ill-equipped to assess cars' high-tech systems, study says

The National Research Council calls on the vehicle safety agency to review its technical capabilities and appoint an advisory panel to help it evaluate risks associated with various car systems.

January 18, 2012|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • A Toyota test driver slams on the brakes to stop a Toyota Prius going 85 mph on a closed course in San Diego. The test in March 2010 was done for the media in response to a driver's claims that his car's accelerator became stuck, leading to a nearly 30-minute ride on Interstate 8 before he could get the car stopped.
A Toyota test driver slams on the brakes to stop a Toyota Prius going 85 mph… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

The nation's top auto safety regulator is ill-equipped to detect problems with high-tech electronics that are increasingly commonplace in today's cars, a new government study has concluded.

Calling such shortcomings "troubling," the report called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to review its technical capabilities and appoint an advisory panel to help it evaluate potentially serious risks associated with systems such as adaptive cruise control.

Despite those findings, the National Research Council found in a 162-page report that NHTSA's decision to close its investigation of sudden acceleration in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles was appropriate, and backed its conclusion that there was no evidence that an electronic defect caused the dangerous problem.

Nonetheless, the proliferation of computerized devices poses new challenges for NHTSA, and "the agency needs to plan for the future of electronics in vehicles," said Louis J. Lanzerotti, a physics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and chairman of the committee that authored the report.

When NHTSA commissioned the study in March 2010, it was tasked with evaluating "the broad topic of electronic vehicle controls and unintended acceleration as a whole."

The final report, however, dwells largely on the issues raised by Toyota's problems, which led the automaker to issue more than 14 million recall notices worldwide. It also spurred congressional hearings, record fines and fears that unknown electronic bugs could pose a safety risk in modern vehicles.

Lanzerotti, however, said he knew of no fatalities caused by any electronic systems in any vehicle, a contention that safety advocates disputed.

According to the NRC, which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, NHTSA paid $1.3 million for the study, which came in seven months behind schedule.

"NHTSA has already taken steps to strengthen its expertise in electronic control systems," the auto safety agency said in a statement Wednesday. "But NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe."

The NRC committee's 16 members reviewed NHTSA investigations as well as a study by NASA on Toyota throttle systems. In addition, it met with consumer advocates, academics and automakers, including a full day spent with Toyota officials in Irvine, according to Lanzerotti.

Its report found that NTHSA did not have the technical expertise to properly monitor safety in electronics that are rapidly taking control of nearly every automotive system. To deal with that, it recommended a number of steps, including the appointment of an outside technical advisory panel to help NHTSA keep abreast of technological advances. The findings mirrored conclusions made by NHTSA itself more than a year ago, when it found it needed to "increase its existing expertise in vehicle electronics and emerging technologies."

The contrast between the NRC's two findings — that NHTSA properly concluded that Toyota's electronics were not at fault in sudden acceleration and yet at the same time is lacking in technical expertise — struck some interested parties as glaring.

The NRC "implies that NHTSA is the Keystone Cops of investigating electronic throttles, but gives them a thumbs-up for their [sudden acceleration] investigation," said Brian Strange, a Los Angeles attorney who is co-lead counsel in state lawsuits against Toyota claiming economic damages related to the acceleration problem.

Lanzerotti said that his committee was not charged with performing any new research into the problem and simply reviewed existing materials related to unintended acceleration. He said the group did not review any individual driver complaints, nor did it check to see whether complaints continued to mount after the recalls were performed to correct sticking pedals and floor mats that could jam accelerators.

Toyota, which faces numerous state and federal lawsuits, welcomed the study. "Toyota appreciates the NAS for its valuable work on vehicle electronics and the open process NAS has maintained throughout its investigation," Toyota said in a statement, referring to the National Academy of Sciences, which oversees the NRC. "We share the goal of NAS and NHTSA to make America's vehicles even safer."

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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