Washington, D.C. – More complex and interconnected automobile electronic systems are creating new safety oversight challenges, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which is calling on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to address explicitly and proactively.

The findings are in a report commissioned by NHTSA, and written by an independent committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences.

In a statement, NAS said that, “As these electronics systems become more complex, interconnected and capable, safety assurance demands will grow, as will the need to maintain public confidence in their safe performance. NHTSA will need to become more familiar with how manufacturers design safety and security into electronics systems, identify and investigate system faults that may leave no physical trace, and respond convincingly when concerns arise about system safety.”

The National Academies’ Research Council study was requested following reports in 2009 and 2010 of sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles. NHTSA attributed the events to drivers pressing the gas pedal by mistake, and by pedals sticking or becoming trapped by floor mats, which resulted in subsequent safety recalls. NHTSA concluded that errant electronic throttle control systems (ETCs) were not a plausible cause.

The Research Council report found NHTSA’s decision to close the investigation of Toyota’s ETC justified on the basis of the agency’s investigations, but said that it is “troubling” that NHTSA could not convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics. The Council said that ETCs are simple and mature technologies compared to the newer electronic systems being deployed and developed, and to respond effectively and confidently to claims of defects in more complex systems, NHTSA will require additional specialized technical expertise.

“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, chair of the committee that wrote the 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.”

The panel recommended by the report should consist of experts on software and systems engineering, human factors and electronics hardware, and should be consulted on relevant technical matters that arise throughout the agency’s vehicle safety programs, including regulatory reviews, defect investigation processes, and research needs assessments.

NHTSA rules require that vehicles have certain safety features and capabilities, but do not prescribe how manufacturers meet these standards. The manufacturer has the primary responsibility for designing electronics and for testing them, while one of NHTSA’s main roles is to spot and investigate safety defects that escape the auto manufacturers’ safety assurance processes and to order safety recalls when necessary. The NAS report recommends a strategic planning process to guide the agency’s fulfillment of these critical responsibilities as cars become more technologically complex.

In a follow-up statement, NHTSA said that it is reviewing the report’s recommendations and will carefully consider them. “NHTSA has already taken steps to strengthen its expertise in electronic control systems while expanding research in this area,” the agency said in its statement, “and the agency has considerable experience dealing with vehicle electronics issues in its research, rulemaking and enforcement programs. But NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe, including research to assess potential safety concerns and help ensure the reliability of electronic control systems in vehicles. The agency will also further refine its strategic plan to address any potential technical and policy issues.”

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