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Friday, August 13, 2010

Unintended Acceleration in Passenger Vehicles

Suzanne M. Kirchhoff
Analyst in Industrial Organization and Business

David Randall Peterman
Analyst in Transportation Policy

Congress is considering legislation to strengthen federal regulation of auto safety, in response to hundreds of reported accidents, and more than 50 fatalities, that may be linked to sudden acceleration in certain makes of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Toyota, under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has recalled more than 6 million autos in the United States, and for a time stopped production of certain new-model vehicles in an effort to address the problems—one of the largest such efforts in recent history. But lawmakers and consumer advocates say federal oversight has been inadequate, given that NHTSA began investigating reports of sudden acceleration in certain Toyotas in 2002. Internal corporate documents indicate that Toyota was slow to address other vehicle quality concerns. NHTSA in April 2010 fined Toyota $16.375 million, the maximum allowed by law, for failing to quickly notify the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) of an accelerator pedal defect in some cars.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is continuing uncertainty about the cause of the Toyota incidents. Despite the recalls, a series of NHTSA investigations, and internal tests by Toyota engineers since 2002, there is not a consensus as to whether reported incidents of sudden acceleration have been caused by sticking accelerator pedals, poorly designed floor mats, driver error, glitches in the electronic throttle systems, or some combination of factors. DOT officials have expanded their investigation into Toyota operations, are taking a broad look at the increasingly complex electronics in all U.S. automobiles, and may recommend tougher standards for vehicles with electronic accelerators. At the same time, Toyota has announced its own stepped-up safety initiatives, including installing brake-override software (a system that gives priority to braking when the brake and accelerator are depressed at the same time) in some recalled and new-model cars, setting up an outside investigative panel headed by former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, and changing its corporate structure.

Lawmakers are considering a variety of issues as they craft a legislative response to the problems. Some Members of Congress are concerned that NHTSA did not conduct timely, thorough investigations of consumer complaints about Toyota vehicles and are examining whether the agency has sufficient staff and expertise, particularly in electrical and software engineering, to keep pace with the increasing complexity of autos. NHTSA has two electrical engineers on staff. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has enlisted NASA engineers to assist NHTSA with its review.

Another issue is whether the 2000 TREAD Act, enacted in response to deaths and accidents linked to Firestone tires, has been effective. The act was designed to spur early warning of safety concerns, compel auto manufacturers to expeditiously address problems, and improve consumer information. The number of automotive recalls has increased since the TREAD Act was passed, but most of the recalls are voluntary, in part due to the lengthy legal process required in mandating a recall. Further, the DOT's $16.375 million fine against Toyota is based on the DOT's determination that the company did not comply with the TREAD Act requirements to quickly report defects. Congress is also examining whether Toyota problems are signs of broader issues in the automobile industry. Electronics and software in automobiles account for as much as 40% of the cost of producing a car, and the systems are advancing to the point that they are used to control more essential safety features. U.S. and foreign automakers carry out extensive testing of software and electronics based on industry guidelines and their own, internal standards. The quality control system is less rigorous than for other areas of the transportation sector, however, such as aviation.

Date of Report: July 29, 2010
Number of Pages: 39
Order Number: R41205
Price: $29.95

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