A year ago, U.S. auto-safety regulators closed a probe into unintended acceleration by Toyota Motor Corp. (TM:US) vehicles, saying floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals were to blame. Yesterday, regulators said all cars should have safety features that address acceleration from electronic malfunctions and other causes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s proposed rule, requiring cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. to have so-called brake override features, reflects continuing concerns over the Toyota recalls of more than 10 million vehicles worldwide.
Toyota blamed floor mats that could jam pedals and accelerators that could stick in the down position and NHTSA agreed. Still, some auto-safety advocates suspect electronics faults in the Toyota incidents and the National Academy of Sciences has said it couldn’t rule that out.
“When you eliminate human error, when you get rid of mechanical flaws, you only have electronics left,” Center for Auto Safety President Clarence Ditlow said in an interview. “At that point, you only have to focus on that.”
Toyota’s 2009 and 2010 recalls followed the death of a driver and his family members in a Lexus that he was unable to stop. NHTSA investigated with NASA, the U.S. space agency, and said they found no electronics causes for the Toyota incidents. A National Academy of Sciences panel said the auto safety agency was justified in closing its probe, while saying electronic or software glitches couldn’t be excluded.
Several hundred lawsuits are pending against Toyota alleging injuries or deaths were caused when vehicles accelerated out of control. Most of the lawsuits are consolidated for pretrial treatment in federal court in Santa Ana, California. Toyota also faces lawsuits by consumers who claim that unintended acceleration problems lowered the value of their cars.
More than 20 years after Audi sedan recalls for unintended acceleration, safety advocates and investigators say it’s impossible to rule out what the scientific panel has called “untraceable faults” as more vehicle components - including throttles - are electronically controlled.
“At the end of the day with all the money’s been spent trying to identify electrical issues, you’d think they’d have found something,” Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of auto- researcher Edmunds.com, said in an interview. “But you can’t say there isn’t something.”
U.S. regulators say the cost of the new rule would be negligible because most automakers have added brake override systems to vehicles produced since the Toyota recalls.
“This just codifies what seems to be the best practice in automotive design,” Brian Johnson, an analyst at Barclays Capital based in Chicago, said in an interview. “Having written software back in college, it seems to be a pretty straightforward fix. There wasn’t much pushback from the auto industry.”
Toyota, based in Toyota City, Japan, pledged by February 2010, before U.S. congressional hearings into the recalls, that the company would put brake override systems on all new models beginning in 2011 and retrofit seven existing models with software fixes.
“We are currently reviewing the NHTSA notice of proposed rulemaking in detail but are proud that with the 2011 model year, Toyota was the first full-line automaker to make brake override systems standard across all model lines,” Brian Lyons, a U.S.-based Toyota spokesman, said yesterday in an e-mail.
Automakers have questioned other safety-related changes that Congress and regulators have considered in the wake of Toyota’s record recalls.
“Brake override continues to make sense because we agree that in those rare situations where a throttle is open and the driver doesn’t want it that way, they should be able to control their cars with their brakes,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include Toyota. “Senate provisions requiring the agency to initiate rulemakings on pedal placement and electronic systems are highly unlikely to provide any legitimate safety benefits.”
A standard dictating where brake and accelerator pedals may be placed relative to each other and standards addressing vehicle electronics systems should be enacted to help address potential unintended-acceleration causes, including driver error, Ditlow said.
The brake override rule follows a proposed rule issued in December requiring keyless ignition designs that allow drivers to shut off vehicles in motion.
NHTSA has said it plans this year to issue a rule that passenger vehicles be equipped with event data recorders that could tell investigators whether a driver reporting unintended acceleration pressed the brake or opened the throttle before a crash.
Ditlow’s Washington-based group helped enact a regulation after unintended acceleration reports in the 1980s that requires drivers to press the brake before shifting cars with automatic transmissions into gear.
“If you eliminate the startup one, if you eliminate jammed floor mats, if you eliminate pedal misapplication, then and then only will you really know how many are electronic,” he said. “After we have eliminated those, then the world at large will have to concede that it really was electronics for x percent.”
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