National Research Council closes book on unintended acceleration, recommends actions to improve car safety

Consumer Reports News: January 18, 2012 05:38 PM

A new report by the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board finds that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acted appropriately in discontinuing its investigation of unintended acceleration claims with Toyota vehicles. However, the Research Council finds it “troubling” that NHTSA could not readily address public safety concerns in this matter.

The long-awaited report follows a wave of consumer complaints with Toyota and Lexus vehicles purporting that the cars accelerated without driver input—at times despite claims of the driver pressing the brake pedal. While preceded by other cases and even recalls, the issue received national attention after a fatal accident in August, 2009, involving an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer driving his family in Lexus ES. Floor-mat entrapment was later found to be the cause, with a non-original, all-weather mat to blame.

In the months that followed, several large-scale recalls were issued to address probable factors related to unintended acceleration, including floor mat replacement, floor mat anchors, gas-pedal modifications to reduce mat entrapment risk and address potential sticking, and software updates to enable smart-throttle brake override as a precaution on certain late-model vehicles.

NHTSA determined that misapplication of the gas pedal, mat entrapment, and sticking pedals were the culprits and not electronic throttle problems, corroborated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after a 10-month investigation.

The Research Council notes that electronic throttle control systems, thought by some to be a root cause for unintended acceleration, are “simple and mature technologies.” It expresses concerns with how NHTSA will monitor and respond to defects in more complex systems, both on the road today and those coming in the future.

The report calls for NHTSA to be strategic in addressing the challenges its safety rules and future technologies present, suggesting it use an advisory committee to help keep the government agency on the leading edge.

In addition, the reports calls for a review of Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) with the aim to improve it’s ability to identify and address problems with increasingly complicated electronics systems that may not leave physical traces of issues.

A key aid to investigators, event data recorders (EDRs) are recommended to be included on all new vehicles. Further, the Research Council supports NHTSA goal to research pedal layout and keyless ignition designs, while underscoring the importance of human factors in electronic system design.

This report brings to a conclusion a significant chapter in automotive history. The renewed focus on safety in the context of modern cars puts the focus on new, emerging systems, while fostering changes within NHTSA to keep pace with these challenges.

See our guide to unintended acceleration.

Five key fixes automakers should make now to reduce unintended acceleration
Consumers Union calls for changes to strengthen U.S. car-safety net
Timeline of Toyota acceleration investigations
Misaligned floor mat may have caused calamity

Jeff Bartlett

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