The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced that it is considering imposing vehicle electronic requirements on vehicles. This announcement shouldn’t be a surprise to any lawyer who has been involved in litigation involving Toyota vehicles. In fact, NHTSA is required to do this. In response to the investigation into Toyota’s Sudden Unintended Acceleration problems related to the electronics in Toyota’s vehicles, Congressional action back in 2012 requires NHTSA to report to Congress on its “progress on examining the need for safety standards.” But this announcement comes at an interesting time as NHTSA is just weeks removed from having faced intense scrutiny from Congress for its role in the GM ignition recall fiasco. Congress felt NHTSA should have known more about the problem and helped to prevent it. It was even shockingly determined that NHTSA, as an organization, didn’t possess advanced knowledge of how air bags work.
The 2012 law requires NHTSA to report to Congress on the highest-priority areas for safety for electronic systems. Even though vehicles have a growing number of electronics systems, they really aren’t governed by any performance rules. NHTSA’s rules focus on performance of the car rather than electronics. The notice takes note of the sea-change in automotive systems in the last three and a half decades, enumerating the transformation with the kinds of statistics that emerged during the agency’s February 2010 assessment of Toyota Unintended Acceleration problems and the tragic results associated with this problem.
NHTSA must do a better job of regulating the constantly advancing field of electronics involved in motor vehicles. NHTSA seems mindful of the dire consequences that could happen if an electrical problem occurred while driving down a highway. NHTSA currently has research underway that is “evaluating the hazards associated with electronic control systems that could impact a vehicle’s steering, throttle, braking and motive power first because they can impact the fundamental control functions that a driver performs.”
According to NHTSA, its intention was to determine “whether there are emerging gaps in the functional safety assurance processes of motor vehicles.” Sean Kane, the founder and president of Safety Research and Strategies, who has been at the forefront of research into the systemic problems in the automotive industry with its electronic control systems, stated in response to NHTSA’s recent announcement:
The concerns about and the gaps around the functional safety and reliability of today’s automotive electronics are present, specific and abundant. In 2011, The Safety Record (his publication) examined 12 months of recalls to determine the prevalence of recalls related to electronic defects. After reviewing 722 recall campaigns, The Safety Record found that electronics recalls comprised more than a quarter; of those, 24 recall campaigns addressed software defects.
Mr. Kane further pointed out that just in the last 30 days alone NHTSA listed three investigations related to electronic defects – low-speed unexpected acceleration in Toyota Corollas; loss of Electric Assisted Power Steering in Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ vehicles; and failures of the Totally Integrated Power Module (TIPM) installed in Chrysler SUVs, trucks, and vans. We fully expect there to be more safety-related problems involving vehicle electronics. NHTSA must get prepared to deal with these problems. Our experience in the Toyota litigation alone was enough to let our lawyers know to expect widespread problems relating to vehicle electronics in the coming months and years.
Sources: This article is compilation of articles from Sean Kane’s “The Safety Record” published Oct. 14, 2014; the Driving Sales News’ “NHTSA Wants to Regulate Vehicle Electronics” published Oct. 7, 2014 and The Detroit News’ “Feds Consider Vehicle Electronic Rules”, published Oct. 6, 2014.
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