Cutting-edge electronics will require US to revamp auto defect investigations

Experts in software and systems engineering, electronics and communications will become integral to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

CES shot/Ford
The often complex, interconnected electronics systems now proliferating across most cars and truck will require the US government that watches over auto safety -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- to revamp the way it handles and researches problems.

Background: Seven advanced car technologies the government wants now

That was the main conclusion of a report out this week from the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board that stated the 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 recommends a number of improvements NHSTA should make:

  • NHTSA should set up 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.
  • Set up 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. 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.
  • 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. The report recommends that NHTSA's research program 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 also evaluated a number of NHTSA's ongoing 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 report stated.

The report was generated as a result of the reports of sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles in2009-2010.  NHTSA attributed these events to drivers pressing the gas pedal by mistake and to two other issues -- pedals sticking or becoming trapped by floor mats -- 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 council stated.

While it didn't question the finding, it did say it is "troubling" that NHTSA could not convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics.  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.

"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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