Getting Ready for Cars that Drive Us

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National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland opened a global safety conference this week in Washington D.C. on a skeptical note about Google Inc.’s experimental fleet of automated Toyota Priuses–self-driving cars that use sensors and software to navigate.

“More people feel that the task of driving belongs to the driver,” Strickland said. “And do you really want to sort of hand over your safety to a machine?”

Every other year, the world’s auto manufacturers, component suppliers, engineers and designers gather at the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference to present the latest innovations in safety-related technology, automotive data and research. So, it is no small irony that Strickland poses this question in their midst, because whether the public wants to or not, its safety is already in the hands of the machines.

Electronic throttle control, known in the industry as drive-by-wire or E-Gas actually debuted in passenger vehicles in BMW’s 7 series in 1988. Nearly a quarter of a century later, today’s vehicles have upended the traditional relationship between the driver and the auto. Direct inputs from the driver manipulating mechanical parts via cables and gears have been replaced by indirect commands. It doesn’t look all that different. The pedals and levers are still there, but under the hood, the landscape has changed. Driver commands are no longer direct. They are interpreted by sensors and software that open the throttle and assist steering and braking, among other tasks. The car “key” in your hand is no longer the key – the computer code inside it is.

And yet, the regulations governing all of this wizardry are still stuck in a bygone technological age. The two biggest auto safety crises in the last decade – Ford/Firestone tire tread separation rollovers and Toyota unintended acceleration – both grew to mammoth proportions as public safety issues in large part due to antiquated and non-existent safety standards.

In the 1990s, America’s most popular and best-selling SUV, the Ford Explorer, equipped with its original equipment Firestone tires, was prone to fatal rollovers after tread separations at highway speeds. The Firestone Radial ATX and Wilderness radial tires met all of the federal regulations at the time. Those standards, however, were written when bias ply tires were the norm. There were no federal standards for occupant protection in rollovers and no minimum stability requirements for SUVs, a new breed of station wagon based on high, narrow truck platforms. Industry fought off any regulations, even as the rollover death tolls in these trucks began to reach epidemic levels.

Then a series of gruesome high-profile crashes and news stories about the safety of Ford Explorers and Firestone tires triggered Congressional hearings. The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act in 2001 compelled NHTSA to update standards. In doing so, the agency had to educate itself about tire technology. The result was a tougher standard that produced more robust tires. That has been followed by a standard to strengthen roofs, and a stability metric used by the government in rating the rollover propensity of vehicles. While the latter wasn’t a federal motor vehicle safety standard, industry improved its product to harness the marketing power of five-star ratings.

A decade later, the lack of a regulatory framework laid the foundation for an eerily similar scenario. Complaints of unintended acceleration dogged Toyota for six years, but for years NHTSA’s defect investigators could find nothing wrong. Toyota vehicles meet the federal accelerator controls standard, FMVSS 124 – only it was penned in 1972 when throttles still had cables. The agency attempted to upgrade the standard, but again, industry fought off any changes. Then, a high-profile crash kills a California highway patrolman and his family. The media questions the safety of Toyota’s electronics in some of the most popular vehicles produced by the number-one automaker in the world. The NASA Engineering Safety Center’s evaluation of Toyota’s electronic architecture found numerous flaws and a possible cause of unintended acceleration in some vehicles, only to be dismissed by the Secretary of Transportation as unlikely to occur in the real world. The debate about the role of electronics in unintended acceleration will continue.

Unlike the Explorer rollover fiasco, Toyota unintended acceleration has not yet resulted in legislation that would focus NHTSA on a much-neglected area of safety regulation. The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 would have, among other things, compelled the agency to write an electronic systems performance standard. But the bill died in December. Rulemaking is the process by which NHTSA develops its institutional understanding of vehicle technology and functional outcomes. Without that critical step, automakers are left to their own devices; the agency is left behind.

We handed safety over to the machines long ago — and that’s not always a bad thing. Electronics can improve safety. Features like electronic stability control, for example, make vehicles less prone to rollovers and save lives. But there are still no minimum requirements for the safety of electronic architectures in vehicles. Allowing automaker to install electronic systems without those requirements ensures that the crashes will continue, as will crises – at great cost to planned safety priorities.

Sean Kane is founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, Mass.-based consulting firm involved in vehicle and consumer product safety. He has consulted with plaintiff attorneys in litigation against Toyota. This commentary includes views he presented this week to the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration.

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