The three decades-old problem of sudden unintended acceleration – that only occurs in cars fitted with automatic gearboxes and electronic systems directly controlling their throttles – has led us to write this letter. It explains why we believe that Government Regulators must now mandate the use of functional safety techniques in the automotive industry, based on the approach used in all other safety-related industries i.e. independent safety assessment to peer reviewed public functional safety standards.
Unlike other industries that use electronics to control safety-critical functions, the automobile industry does not employ peer-reviewed public functional safety standards, or independent safety assessors to verify conformance to such standards. Presently we are expected to simply trust whatever automakers assert about the safety of their products!
The auto industry is probably the only industry in the world allowed by Government Regulators (such as NHTSA in the USA) to behave in this way regarding risk to the Public. Certainly, the rail, aviation and medical device industries are not allowed such freedom – despite the fact that, every day, many more people are exposed to lethal hazards from automobiles. Rather than accept responsibility automakers are content to blame drivers, even when accidents could have been caused by malfunctions of electronics based driver assistance systems. Unfortunately, for well over a decade the Regulators have demonstrably failed to intervene in this area with any effect.
If the problem of the poor quality of functional safety in the design and manufacture of automotive systems is not promptly addressed then we expect the current and next generation of vehicle electronic systems to result in considerably increased carnage on the roads in future.
In the early evening of 28th August 2009 an off-duty California Highways Policeman was driving a hired 2009 Lexus ES 350 saloon when it suddenly accelerated to about 120 mph shortly before reaching a T junction. The runaway vehicle hit a Ford Explorer, crashed through a fence, flew into the air, turned over twice and fell into the flood plain of the San Diego River, where it exploded in a ball of fire.
Mark Saylor a skilled police driver with 19 years experience and inspector of heavy vehicles, his wife, 13 year old daughter and brother-in-law were killed instantly. The last 48 seconds before the crash were recorded in a dramatic 911 call which captured the horror of the event.
As one newspaper put it: “Rarely, if ever, has one family’s fatal crash had such an impact, forcing the world’s largest automaker to admit thousands of sudden-acceleration complaints, recall more than 8 million vehicles worldwide and answer growing questions from Congress and consumers about its safety record.”However, in spite of the recalls to check floor mats and fixings or to insert shims to prevent the possibility of sticky accelerator pedals, sudden unintended acceleration incidents are still occurring in Toyota vehicles that allegedly have been fixed. The fact that a skilled police driver like Mark Saylor would have been perfectly capable of dealing with such problems adds to the strong suggestion that the causes of sudden unintended acceleration have not been sufficiently addressed, and probably lie elsewhere.
Toyota categorically denies the possibility of malfunctioning electronic throttle controls. This denial makes it appear, by default, that drivers are to blame and the cause of their own misfortunes: apparently failing to be in control of their vehicles at all times, as the law requires. It is not clear on what factual basis Toyota make their assertions. Thus, in extremis, because the vehicle electronic systems are given the benefit of the doubt, the drivers of suddenly accelerating vehicles are punished for allegedly reckless driving. However we assert that in many cases it should be the automobile manufacturers who should be punished for reckless inattention to the requirements of functional safety.