Automotive electronics systems are becoming increasingly complex and essential to the proper and safe operation of cars and trucks. Vehicle controls for basic operation and safety functions are increasingly being implemented by electronic modules. Very few folks driving motor vehicles have even a basic understanding of that vehicle’s electronics system.
The primary functions of operating a motor vehicle, acceleration, steering and braking, are now controlled by electronics. Gone are the days where a steering shaft mechanically connects to a tie rod end, or a steel cable runs from the accelerator pedal to the carburetor. Now a sensor attached to a steering wheel sends an electronic signal to the steering pump telling it how much to turn the wheels on the car. A sensor on the gas pedal sends an electronic signal to a servo on the throttle body telling it how much to open the flap that controls the fuel and air mixture to the engine.
As vehicular electronic content continues to climb into and beyond the range of 70 to 80 modules per vehicle, the importance of thorough reliability/durability design and testing is becoming a major responsibility for the industry. Recently, The Detroit News reported that GM told 4,000 owners of the 2013 Chevy Volt to go to the dealership to fix a glitch that could shut down the electric motor. According to the newspaper the affected vehicles could have a software glitch that causes the Volt to stall. GM spokeswoman Michelle Malcho told The Detroit News recently:
We have received a few reports from owners that their electric motor has temporarily stopped working, resulting from a software anomaly when their vehicle is in the delayed time and rate charge mode. We’re asking owners to bring their vehicles into their local Chevy dealer for a re-flash of the vehicle’s control system.
The ability of these electronic systems to function reliably is becoming a greater aspect of vehicle safety that was dramatically demonstrated by the 2009 – 2011 recalls of over 9 million Toyota vehicles for unintended acceleration issues. The Toyota crisis revealed the challenges of evaluating, validating and investigating the reliability and safety assurance aspect of modern interactive vehicle controls systems by OEMs, electronic system suppliers and regulators.
As an aftermath of the incident, the U.S. National Academy of Science in January of 2012 issued “Special Report #038 (record #13342): The Safety Challenge and Promise of Automotive Electronics – Insights from Unintended Acceleration.” The report stated that federal safety regulators in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lack the expertise to monitor vehicles with increasingly sophisticated electronics as was demonstrated by the need for NHTSA to call in NASA electronic personnel to assist in the investigation.
The Toyota issue has implications for all rulemaking and defect investigations involving automotive electronics going forward. The era of solely mechanical and safety-critical primary vehicle functions – opening the throttle, applying the brakes, steering – is swiftly passing into history. The federal agency tasked with regulating this transition and reducing hazards as automakers innovate away from cables to computers must not be compromised by a lack of knowledge. As lawyers in our firm have discovered from Toyota unintended acceleration investigations stretching from 2003 to the present, automakers can exploit this technical ignorance at the expense of consumers and public safety.
In the meantime, electronics remain a largely unregulated area of vehicle safety, even though they dominate vehicle systems fleetwide. Seven years ago, NHTSA abandoned its effort to upgrade the 1972 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 124 Accelerator Controls. That was because the automobile industry protested. In 2003, NHTSA said that it would resume rulemaking after more study, but shockingly no further action has been taken by the agency.
Most safety experts believe that advances in vehicle technology, if implemented and regulated properly, should lead to safer vehicles. The Toyota debacle should serve as a lesson to the automobile industry and to regulators on what not to do from a safety perspective. It has been almost ten years since Toyota was put on notice of its vehicles suddenly and uncontrollably accelerating. The issue remains unresolved. That can’t be justified. If you want more information on any of the above contact Graham Esdale, a lawyer in our firm, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Graham.Esdale@beasleyallen.com.
Source: Safety Research and Strategies
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