It was reported last month by L.S. Sherman Consulting, litigation specialists, that U.S. vehicle recalls related to electronic systems have tripled. The firm also says that investigations relating to these systems have quadrupled in the past 30 years. The recalls follow a tremendous increase in the use of computers to control functions such as acceleration. Lawmakers and safety advocates probing Toyota Motor Corp.’s handling of sudden-acceleration complaints say NHTSA has failed to keep pace with the technology.
Recalls related to electronics averaged 34 a year this decade, up from 11 annually in the 1980s. It’s also significant that defect investigations rose to a dozen per year from three in that period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News from NHTSA databases. The data also reveals that complaints to NHTSA about vehicle electronic systems rose 50 percent from the mid-1990s to 3,798 annually this decade.
It’s obvious that NHTSA badly needs an upgrade in a number of areas, and that’s especially true when it comes to staffing. The agency currently has only two engineers out of 125 who specialize in electronics. NHTSA lacks regulations for auto electronics, and rules governing accelerators were written in 1973 and last updated in 1995. At present NHTSA may hire one more electronics specialist and can hire outside experts when needed and the money is available. It’s feared by members of Congress and safety experts that, while carmakers have entered the electronics era, NHTSA hasn’t kept up with the industry nor with the technology.
Although NHTSA enforces a multitude of vehicle safety standards, the agency is definitely shorthanded. For example, NHTSA’s rulemaking office has only 62 employees. The Obama administration has requested 66 additional employees for the agency in its fiscal 2011 budget and has said it “will target these positions to meet the areas in most need.”
Andy Chou, Chief Scientist at Coverity Inc., a firm that analyzes automotive and other types of software for defects, says “a modern luxury car may have functions run by as many as 100 million lines of software code, enough to fill a stack of letter-sized pages the height of a 50-story building.” Even the most carefully written software probably has about one defect per 10,000 lines of code, according to an analysis by Coverity. This was based on work done by the firm during the past seven years.
Microchips for U.S. cars were introduced in some luxury models in the 1970s to control engine timing, fuel injection and brakes, according to John Wolkonowicz, a former automotive engineer who is an analyst at IHS Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Mass. The first industry-wide microprocessor modules, or devices that run particular automotive systems, were the engine control units required in 1981 to cut pollution, he said. Automakers added modules in the 1980s for heating and cooling systems, and transmission and drive-train functions were computerized in many models in the 1990s.
Wolkonowicz says that since 2000, the most significant proliferation has been of microprocessors to help avoid crashes, control air bags and improve engine efficiency. He pointed out that electronic throttles like those in Toyota models under scrutiny didn’t come into widespread use starting in 2002. Today, a typical car has from 80 to 100 microprocessors, according to Atlanta-based Hughes Telematics Inc., which makes electronics for cars.
While allegations of sudden acceleration in Toyota models drew attention to possible electronics defects, the majority of such alleged failures involve less deadly, but still very serious, incidents such as stalling, instrument failures or fires. In one such case, U.S. regulators started tallying electronic-system complaints for 2004 Buick Rendezvous models almost as soon as they went on sale. Complaints to NHTSA show that the vehicles’ reported failures included stalling at 65 mph and at stop lights. GM’s subsequent 2005 recall of about 35,000 Rendezvous and Pontiac Aztek sport-utility vehicles to replace ignition modules was among 45 actions related to electrical systems that year, according to U.S. data. For the GM SUVs, the problem turned out to be silicon used to make ignition control modules that could become contaminated and keep the engine from starting or cause stalling.
In one failure, according to NHTSA records, Volvo last year recalled 11,993 cars and SUVs to download new software onto an engine controller because the original programming could fail to send a signal to a fuel pump, making the vehicles stall and possibly causing a crash. There are about 60,000 complaints about electrical or electronics systems among 767,000 records in the NHTSA database since the complaints were first compiled by computer in 1995. The data showed complaints alleging 1,100 crashes based on the malfunctions with electrical or electronics systems and a handful of deaths, several of which are included in at least 110 deaths linked to sudden acceleration at Toyota and other automakers in the U.S.
L.S. Sherman Consulting believes specific rules for electronics systems are badly needed as well as standards for the collection of information from “black boxes.” Without these, they pointed out that “it’s difficult to recreate the causes of crashes.” An automobile tester for Consumer Reports made this observation:
Vehicles are getting so much more complicated and we have to expect that to diagnose these problems is going to be ever more hard. With mechanical problems, you could trace it to an issue you can see. In today’s cars, most of the time you have to plug it into a laptop computer to find out what’s going on. How often do you figure out what caused your laptop to crash?
You can get the complete report on the above subject by going to lsshermanconsulting.com. Linda Sherman and her folks have done a tremendous job of putting the information in an understandable format. If you need additional information on this subject, call Linda Sherman, who is well-known and highly respected in her field of expertise, at (610) 642-7755.
Source: L S Sherman Consulting
P.O. Box 61
Wynnewood, PA 19096
Contact us today for a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney.
Fields marked *may be required for submission.
If you would like to subscribe to the Jere Beasley Report digital edition, simply visit our Subscriptions page and provide the necessary information or call us at 800-898-2034.
Attorney Advertising - Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.