A US Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday to probe the slackardly performance by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in enforcing auto and highway safety laws.
The trigger for this hearing is the NHTSA's failure to press General Motors on ignition switch complaints. Add to this a long story in Monday's New York Times chronicling the NHTSA's cozy relationship with the auto companies it is supposed to regulate.
The NYT found that the agency "spends about as much money rating new cars -- a favorite marketing tool for automakers -- as it does investigating potentially deadly manufacturing defects." Further, the agency has been "so deferential to automakers that it made a key question it poses about fatal accidents optional."
Jean Bookout was injured and her passenger killed in 2007 because the 2005 Toyota Camry that Bookout was driving in Oklahoma suddenly accelerated. The safety agency took three years (until 2010) to ask the automaker about the cause of the accident. Toyota replied at that time, "Toyota understands that this request is optional and respectfully declines to respond at this time," according to the NYT story.
According to Sean Kane, an auto safety expert at Safety Research & Strategies, putting the NHTSA on the spot could not have come at a better time. It coincides with the filing of a formal complaint with the NHTSA by engineer Robert Ruginis about multiple low-speed surge events involving his wife's 2010 Toyota Corolla.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
The Sept. 16 oversight hearing, led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), will explore possible reforms to vehicle and highway safety laws and ways to bolster the NHTSA's capabilities as Congress works on a long-term transportation funding bill, according to a press release from McCaskill's office.
"I'm interested in the capability NHTSA has to get at problems. They've obviously missed some big ones," McCaskill told the Detroit News last week. "The part of NHTSA that is responsible for monitoring issues like [GM] -- they haven't even asked for an increase in staff and cars have gotten a lot more complicated."
The lack of electrical engineers and software engineers on the NHTSA staff was widely reported in 2010, when software malfunction issues in Toyota's electronics throttle control system surfaced. The agency reportedly has added EEs and software engineers since then, but it's far from clear if it is better equipped today to examine the growth of electronic content in cars.
As automakers, whose expertise used to be all about prowess in mechanical engineering, deploy more and more software in embedded systems, the ability to design and test safety-critical systems has become imperative. The same goes, by extension, for the NHTSA, the government's safety watchdog.
As Michael Barr of the Barr Group explained during the trial of the Bookout case in Oklahoma, many factors could turn embedded systems lethal. "A glitch in the electronics, a bug in the software, an unforeseen gap in the intended safety features, or all three -- glitch activates bug, and that slips through safety gap -- could go wrong," resulting in system failures that could kill or injure people. (Toyota was found liable for its electronics failures.)
The question is whether carmakers are ready to design electronically controlled cars with enough redundancy and fault containment to make them safer than their mechanical forebears. More importantly, we need to question whether those responsible for monitoring the safety of such software-laden cars are indeed capable of probing the details of such safety-critical systems.
How ironic that Ruginis -- whose NHTSA complaint focuses on Toyota's unintended acceleration problems -- actually started out his engineering career at Chrysler. Though he says he doesn't have any current dealings with or knowledge of automotive engineering, he told me his first job in 1977 was in the Chrysler Power Plant R&D department. That was "their advanced R&D, dealing with engine control systems."
Ruginis was trying to find ways to use microprocessors to control car engines. At the Chrysler Institute, he even taught a class to mechanical engineers about "what a microprocessor could do so they could try to find ways to use them in Chrysler products."
(Source: New York Times)
Ruginis remembers that it was a "hard sell" to engineers. Back in those days, engineers "thought the batteries' only use was to ignite the spark plug, turn on the lights, and heat the cigarette lighter." There were no microprocessors in Chrysler products the year he started there. "I think the first ones came out in 1978, and they controlled the spark advance." He described his experience as being "in the Stone Age, with eight-bit RCA1802 and Fairchild F8 processors in assembler."
His personal story reminds us that the automotive industry has indeed come a long way. In order to match the giant leap carmakers have already made, it's high time to bolster the NHTSA's oversight capabilities. Cost, with people's lives literally at stake, should be no object.
There is one condition, though.
Clearly, the NHTSA, which needs a complete overhaul, must be held accountable for the way it spends money. The agency spends about the same amount of money on investigating defects as it does on rating cars. It's seeking a big increase in the ratings budget this year, according to the NYT report. Such a practice must end.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EETimes