Yesterday marked the end for this week, anyway, of Toyota's testimony in front of a US congressional committee. Next week, Toyota representatives will testify in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation where many expect it will receive a more "cordial" welcome, if testifying in front of any government investigative committee can be deemed cordial. The Senate committee looks like it will be focusing more on the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) role in the recall, and has sent a letter to the NHTSA inspector general to look into how NHTSA handles recalls in general.
Yesterday's US House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearings didn't produce much more insightful information on the cause of complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized and promised to listen more to Toyota customer complaints, including setting up teams to investigate unintended acceleration complaints within 24 hours. He still insisted that there was no defect in Toyota's electronic throttle design, although he did not contradict the testimony on Tuesday that something other than floor mat or sticky pedals might be the cause of runaway cars. President Toyoda also said that he was not fully aware of the complaints about unintended acceleration until recently.
Secretary of U. S. Department of Transportation Ray LaHood said once again that Toyota cars that were being recalled and not yet fixed were "not safe" although, like last time, he backed off that claim when pressed. He also clarified that of the 125 engineers who worked for NHTSA, two were electrical engineers. However, he did not specify their roles at NHTSA nor did he mention any software engineers on NHTSA's engineering staff.
What is most likely to happen next given the two hearings so far and what is expected to happen at next week's hearing is that the US Congress will demand NHTSA conduct a review of electronics and software use in vehicles and determine whether more rigorous governmental safety standards are needed; a congressional demand will be made for all vehicles to contain comprehensive black boxes; and there will likely be demands for lower triggers for mandatory vehicle recalls.
Each would create additional costs for car manufacturers and ultimately to consumers, so it will be interesting to see what actually ends up making it into law after the risk/reward negotiations/debates take place among consumer advocates, politicians, regulators, car manufacturers and their suppliers.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.