Auto Electronic Faults May Be ‘Untraceable,’ U.S. Panel Says

U.S. regulators were justified in closing a probe into unintended acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles without finding electronic causes, a National Academy of Sciences panel said while emphasizing it wasn’t ruling out such failures in the future.

Software and other electronic failures may not leave traces that investigators are equipped to find, so the Washington-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must “become more familiar with and engaged in” setting automotive-electronics standards, the panel said today in a report.

“It’s impossible to prove a complete negative, but all the data available to us indicated the conclusion that there was no electronic or software problem” that may have caused the Toyota unintended acceleration reports, Louis Lanzerotti, a New Jersey Institute of Technology physics professor and chairman of the panel, said today on a conference call with reporters.

Toyota recalled more than 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles worldwide in 2009 and 2010, a record, after reports of unintended acceleration. NHTSA and Toyota investigated the electronic throttle controls, which send signals from the accelerator to the engine. They blamed the incidents on sticky gas pedals or floor mats that might jam them.

The committee often discussed the potential for “untraceable faults” as an explanation for unintended acceleration, the panel said in the report.

Working With Regulators

“We share the goal of NAS and NHTSA to make America’s vehicles even safer, and we will continue to work collaboratively and constructively with regulators and lawmakers to help achieve the greatest possible benefits from the academy’s valuable work,” Toyota said in a statement posted to its website today.

The 16-member scientific panel was convened following congressional hearings in 2010 examining Toyota’s recalls and of the regulator’s response to those defects.

Automotive safety advocates including Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., and Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and former president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, have said the fact that NHTSA didn’t find an electronic cause for the Toyota reports didn’t exonerate the automaker because there was no way to record what may have happened.

Today’s report doesn’t exclude an electronic cause for unintended acceleration, Kane said in a phone interview.

‘Contradictory’ Report

“The report is contradictory,” he said. “On one hand, they call the agency out for being unequipped for being unable to handle electronics. On the other hand, they say they’re not going to second-guess NHTSA’s conclusions.”

Clients of Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, Massachusetts-based advocacy and research firm, include attorneys, engineering companies and suppliers, according to its website.

A report last year by NASA, the U.S. space agency, found no electronic causes of the unintended acceleration in Toyotas.

NHTSA should develop a long-term strategy for meeting the oversight challenges caused by automotive electronics systems, the panel said.

“NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe, including research to assess potential safety concerns and help ensure the reliability of electronic control systems in vehicles,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement. “The agency will also further refine its strategic plan to address any potential technical and policy issues.”

Data Recorders

The panel recommended that regulators require event data recorders in cars and that the safety agency research the design and placement of accelerator and brake pedals to minimize the risk of drivers mistaking one for the other.

NHTSA plans to propose a rule requiring data recorders and to update its accelerator-control safety standard to require a so-called brake override system in a few months, Lynda Tran, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Brake override controls allow the brake to supersede the accelerator pedal when both are pressed at the same time. That would enable a driver with a stuck accelerator pedal to stop the car by pressing the brake.

Today’s report “does close the book” on any remaining Toyota unintended acceleration questions, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters today in Washington. The report “sustains the work that we did and verifies the solutions that we found,” he said.

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