The U.S. Department of Transportation today released results from a ten-month study of potential electronic causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched last spring.
The study was the direct result of U.S. Congressional criticism of DOT’s safety arm, NHTSA, and it said, among other things, that NHTSA had failed to do its job in enforcing U.S. safety regulations regarding Toyota safety matters. Unintended acceleration is implicated in the deaths of 89 people in Toyota and Lexus models.
“We have heard clearly and affirmatively that NHTSA, America’s traffic safety organization, was right all along,” said the head of DOT, a political appointee and Republican from Illinois, Ray LaHood at a press conference in Washington without his nose growing longer. La Hood ignored the substance of the serious and undressed charges against NHTSA, which was called a lapdog of the auto industry during Congressional hearings abut its handling of the Toyota fiasco.
The self conducted NHTSA study if it found problems, of course, would make DOT – with a staggering $79 billion budget vulnerable to Congressional dictated reforms, as well as budget and staff cuts as the deficit debate heats up on Capital Hill.
DOT has a huge, mind boggling budget, but little of the money is allocated to auto safety. Motor vehicles are responsible for 95% of the nation’s transportation deaths but only 1% of the Transportation budget. Worse, the enforcement arm of NHTSA has a budget of less than $20 million. It’s yet another example of the failed regulatory regime in Washington.
Perhaps more troubling is a report, thus far ignored in the media, for the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration by Ronald A. Belt. At the end of January, Belt said that Toyota’s engine control computer was theoretically subject to transient voltages that could cause unintended acceleration.
Belt, who holds doctorate in physics from the University of Notre Dame, called for tear downs of the actual computers from Toyota unintended acceleration accidents. The NAS study is not yet complete, but it will be subject to rigorous peer review.
Subsequent to the well publicized Congressional hearings last year, NHTSA went on to impose record fines totaling $48.8 million in civil penalties on Toyota for cover-ups on safety recalls, including unintended acceleration.NHTSA of course did not fine itself for enabling the fiasco, which included former Toyota employees working at NHTSA dismissing a growing number of complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
Today, not surprisingly given the apparent ineffectiveness and possible corruption at NHTSA, Secretary of Transportation LaHood said that engineers found “no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration incidents.”
The two mechanical safety defects ultimately identified by NHTSA more than a year ago, after long delays by Toyota in the matter – “sticking” accelerator pedals and a design defect that caused accelerator pedals to become trapped by floor mats – remain the “only known causes for these kinds of unsafe unintended acceleration incidents,” according to LaHood.
Toyota has now recalled nearly 8 million vehicles in the United States for these two defects.
LaHood -under intense Congressional committee, media and safety advocate scrutiny – finally launched two investigations last March to answer questions surrounding the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration. But reports due in August were delayed for no publicly stated reason.
At the time the investigations were announced last spring, LaHood also asked the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General to assess whether the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation conducted an “adequate review” of complaints of alleged unintended acceleration reported to NHTSA from 2002 to 2010.
The ongoing controversy surrounding the unintended acceleration problems in Toyota and other vehicles has led to numerous charges from critics that NHTSA is underfunded and improperly staffed to deal with safety matters – a charge that should be laughable since DOT’s budget is $79 billion, albeit with little of it actually devoted to safety matters.
It was revealed last year that NHTSA had but 125 engineers working on auto safety, and only five are electrical engineers. One other is a software engineer– that isn’t a typo, it’s one, uno, 1.
NHTSA is without question particularly weak in the area of electronic controls and systems, as automakers continue to rapidly expand their use in vehicles. And the widely publicized Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, the result of the Toyota Congressional hearings, died when a Republican blocked its consideration during the waning days of the 111th Congress last December.
There are also lingering charges that former NHTSA employees working for Toyota prevented thorough investigations and delayed safety recalls, but they are going nowhere in the corrupt regulatory culture of Washington.