It has been a while since the issue of Toyota's "unintended acceleration" made headlines. Nevertheless, some analysts believe the problem highlights the need for increased automotive oversight.
As you may recall, unintended acceleration left Toyota in a serious bind and forced a recall for some models. One family even died because they couldn't manage to stop a Lexus from accelerating out of control.
Ultimately, some of the claims of unintended acceleration were found to be false. However, the issue called attention to the profound effect a vehicular software glitch poses for both for drivers and passengers.
Indeed, a new report published by the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board recommends the NHTSA provide increased oversight of the automotive industry. Obviously the report isn't demanding increased oversight of Toyota alone, but rather, a change in attitude towards the entire automotive industry.
For example, the report proposes the formation of a new technical advisory panel with members that have backgrounds in design, development, and safety assurance of electronic systems in vehicles today. Personally, I think this sounds like a great idea since Toyota is far from the only firm using electronics in their cars. Many Ford vehicles and other brands use throttle by wire as well.
The NHTSA ultimately attributed the Toyota issues to three problems. One was driver error by stepping on the throttle without realizing it, another was sticking pedals, and the final risk was pedals that could be trapped by floor mats.
NASA also participated in the investigation by anlayzing external factors in an effort to determine if they were affecting vehicle software. Ultimately, NASA concluded that the NHTSA was correct in its three causes. Both NASA and the NHTSA found no evidence of the electronic throttle control contributing in the Toyota incidences.
The conclusion of the investigation was determined to be justified by the report. However, the report also found it "troubling" that the NHTSA was unable to effectively address public concerns about electronics in modern automobiles.
"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 authored the above-mentioned 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."
One reamaining issue? While the NHTSA sets the standards for electronics safety in vehicles, it leaves the testing and implementation up to the vehicle manufacturers to ensure the software and hardware works as intended. Perhaps this paradigm should change?