LOS ANGELES -- The nation's top auto safety regulator is ill-equipped to detect problems with high-tech electronics commonplace in today's cars, a new government study has concluded.
Calling such shortcomings "troubling," the study called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to review its technical capabilities and appoint an advisory panel to help it handle potentially serious risks associated with systems such as adaptive cruise control and GPS navigation.
In addition, the agency should require automakers to install electronic data recorders, often referred to as black boxes, in all new cars, and consider significant changes in the design of pedals and certain ignition systems.
These steps, the National Research Council found in a 139-page report released Wednesday, would help NHTSA "ascertain the causes of unexpected vehicle behaviors" -- in particular unintended acceleration -- and thus improve safety. In addition, they would assist in allaying public concern about the agency's credibility that emerged during the Toyota Motor Corp. recalls of 2009 and 2010.
"Neither the automotive industry, NHTSA, nor motorists can afford a recurrence of something like the unintended acceleration controversy," said Louis Lanzerotti, a physics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and chairman of the committee that authored the report.
The study was commissioned in March 2010, shortly after a series of congressional hearings on sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, a phenomenon that was blamed for scores of deaths, led to hundreds of lawsuits and forced Toyota to pay over $32 million in fines to regulators.
Toyota issued over 14 million recall notices worldwide from November 2009 to February 2011 and repeatedly maintained that its electronically controlled throttles played no role in the problem. Instead, the automaker said, sudden acceleration was caused by faulty floor mats, sticking gas pedals and driver error.
Amid a public firestorm over the recalls, NHTSA announced the National Research Council study, along with a separate examination of electronic throttles by NASA.
The NASA report, released in February 2011, uncovered no conclusive evidence of an electronic defect that could provoke sudden acceleration in the electronic throttle system in Toyota vehicles. That finding was trumpeted by both NHTSA and Toyota as vindication of their previous public conclusions on the matter.
The National Research Council study, originally scheduled to be completed in June of last year, supports NASA's findings and does not contemplate Toyota's own research into the topic.
But the report, called "The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics: Insights from Unintended Acceleration," does point out significant and serious shortcomings at NHTSA, which is charged with ensuring the safety of the nation's automotive fleet.
Although the report's release marks an official end to the government's investigation of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, it's unlikely the issue will go away any time soon. Hundreds of consolidated state and federal lawsuits against Toyota for injuries and economic damages are scheduled to go to trial early next year.
Meanwhile, numerous safety investigators continue to contend that the high rate of sudden acceleration complaints associated with Toyota vehicles as compared with other makes and models of cars have never been adequately explained.
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