Panel OKs NHTSA's Handling of Toyota Recalls

By Jennifer Geiger  on January 20, 2012
A government panel has determined that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acted correctly in closing its investigation into Toyota's unintended-acceleration issues, but it has suggested that NHTSA needs to improve its knowledge of vehicle electronic systems.

The 16-member National Research Council panel was convened by the National Academy of Sciences after the 2010 congressional hearings about Toyota’s recalls and NHTSA’s actions investigating vehicle defects.

NHTSA eventually attributed the unintended-acceleration accidents to driver error, stuck accelerator pedals and faulty floormats, and the agency issued massive recalls of the affected vehicles. The group concluded that the vehicles' electronic throttle control (ETC) systems weren't causing the unintended acceleration but asked NASA to investigate further; NASA corroborated NHTSA's findings. The safety group also commissioned a panel for advice on handling future ETC issues.

"NHTSA will need to become more familiar with how manufacturers design safety and security into electronics systems, identify and investigate system faults that may leave no physical trace, and respond convincingly when concerns arise about system safety," the panel said in a press release. 

The panel also found it disturbing that NHTSA failed to confidently and convincingly address the public's concern about ETC systems. The panel also recommended that the organization create a dedicated automotive electronics department staffed with software, electronic hardware and engineering experts.

In response, NHTSA has said that it has considerable experience dealing with and evaluating vehicle electronic systems and that it has already started strengthening its expertise in this area. 

"NHTSA will continue to evaluate and improve every aspect of its work to keep the driving public safe, including research to assess potential safety concerns and help ensure the reliability of electronic control systems in vehicles. The agency will also further refine its strategic plan to address any potential technical and policy issues," NHTSA said in a press release.

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Assistant Managing Editor Jennifer Geiger is a reviewer, car-seat technician and mom of three. She wears a lot of hats, many of them while driving a minivan.  Email Jennifer