Report: Electronics in Autos Pose New Safety Issues

February 1, 2012

The increasing use of electronic systems in automobiles is a challenge for federal safety regulators who often lack the technical expertise to monitor and investigate problems with the electronics, according to a new report from scientists.

The report from the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board urges the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to anticipate and address the safety issues “explicitly and proactively.”

The report says 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 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, the agency asked 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 justified on the basis of the agency’s investigations. However, the report says it is “troubling” that NHTSA could not convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics.

The report says that NHTSA will need additional specialized technical expertise in order to respond effectively to claims of defects in the more complex electronic systems that are coming.

“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.

He said NHTSA could name a standing advisory committee to 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,” Lanzerotti said.

The report recommends that NHTSA establish a standing technical advisory panel composed of experts on software and systems engineering, human factors and electronics hardware. The panel should be consulted on technical matters that arise throughout regulatory reviews, defect investigation processes, and research needs assessments.

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 responsibilities as cars become more technologically complex. 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, according to the report.

The report also recommends that NHTSA review its Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) to determine the specific capabilities needed investigate flaws in electronics-intensive vehicles.

The report endorses NHTSA’s initiative requiring 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 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. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

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