National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Needs More Electronics Expertise, Report Says

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't know enough about car electronic systems to respond effectively when problems arise, according to a report from the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board released Wednesday.

The study was requested by NHTSA following the 2009-2010 Toyota recalls for sudden acceleration problems. The report found that although those issues weren't caused by Toyota's electronic systems, the agency still needs more expertise in this area. Because of this lack of expertise, the agency was not able to adequately convince the public that electronics were not to blame for Toyota's problems, according to the report.

Some safety watchers still believe, however, that electronics is the root cause of the accidents and deaths associated with unintentional acceleration.

With its lack of electronic safety experts, NHTSA has been unable to "respond convincingly when concerns arise," the report said. Part of the Department of Transportation that's dedicated to safety on the roads, NHTSA counts among its responsibilities the monitoring of safety defects in vehicles and pushing automakers to conduct recalls if problems occur.

Over the past two decades, automakers have increasingly been loading up cars with electronics, from high-tech radios and DVD players to systems that rely on electronics for acceleration and braking. All those electronics can interfere with one another, potentially causing problems. Simple issues could include the shutting down of navigation systems and radio interference, while complex problems might involve cars turning off or accelerating out of control.

The study backed up claims by critics who have said that the safety regulatory agency doesn't know enough about electronics problems to effectively monitor them. The Transportation Research Board recommended that NHTSA engage a standing advisory committee of electronics experts to oversee electronics safety.

"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, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and chair of the committee that authored the report. "Neither the automotive industry, NHTSA, nor motorists can afford a recurrence of something like the unintended acceleration controversy."

NHTSA responded by saying it has begun bulking up its expertise in this area: "NHTSA has already taken steps to strengthen its expertise in electronic control systems while expanding research in this area -- and the agency has considerable experience dealing with vehicle electronics issues in its research, rulemaking, and enforcement programs," the agency said in a statement. "But, NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe."

Wednesday's report also stated that NHTSA was justified in closing its investigation of Toyota's electronic acceleration issues.

"This finding should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles," said Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore. "To date, all of the scientific evidence has confirmed what millions of Toyota drivers prove each day -- that they can depend on their vehicles for safe and reliable transportation."

The report did not criticize NHTSA for its role in investigating Toyota's sudden acceleration problems. NHTSA eventually identified two causes for the sudden acceleration in Toyota cars: floor mats that got stuck under the accelerator pedal and moisture in gas pedals resulting in their sticking open.

But the fact that NHTSA could not convince the public there were no electronics problems is "troubling," the report said.

Some safety advocates like Safety Research & Strategies' Sean Kane have argued there are electronic problems in the cars. Kane explained in May that a study by NASA released in February did not clear Toyota. "The investigations actually showed numerous ways that Toyotas can experience unintended acceleration without alerting the fault detection system," he wrote in a report. "They were simply dismissed as unlikely." At the time of the NASA study, Toyota had responded, "We believe this rigorous scientific analysis by some of America's foremost engineers should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles."

Wednesday's report also said NHTSA needs to overhaul the way it intakes consumer complaints so it can better identify problems when they arise.

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation takes complaints from drivers via mail, phone calls or through its website. The system was set up in 2000 following the Ford/Firestone tire recalls as a way to potentially detect problems earlier. Congress determined at the time that NHTSA could have detected problems with the Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer had it collected complaints in a timelier fashion, even possibly saving some lives.

But the Office of Defects Investigation has become a repository of a vast database of problems that is difficult to wade through. The process of complaint collection and monitoring needs to be improved, the report said, so NHTSA investigators can more easily spot troubling trends.