On 18 January, the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration released a report titled, “The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics.” The report assesses the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) handling of the investigation into complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles from summer 2009 through spring 2010. It also makes recommendations on how the agency can effectively provide safety assurance and oversight to automakers as cars—with the addition of electronic components for safety, performance, and entertainment—become ever more complex.

After NHTSA had concluded that electronic throttle control systems (ETCs) were not the cause of unintended acceleration, lingering doubts about this specific phenomenon morphed into a more general suspicion about electronic automotive components. NHTSA eventually turned to NASA experts to review the data. And if the agency could not definitively and authoritatively declare the matter closed with ETCs (which the committee characterized as relatively simple and mature technologies) how will it, the report reasons, keep the car-buying public from harboring suspicions that complex and highly interactive systems are behind some future series of erratic vehicle behaviors?

(To be fair, part of the unwillingness to accept NHTSA’s conclusions was due to the delay in examining the vehicles that had raced out of control. For a while, the agency was at the mercy of Toyota because only the automaker had the tool needed to retrieve data from the vehicles’ event data recorders (EDRs). EDRs, colloquially black boxes, are part of a vehicle’s airbag control module and store performance data including speed, throttle position, when the brakes were applied, and how forcefully.)

The committee says unequivocally that NHTSA made the right call regarding the electronic throttle control systems in Toyota vehicles, but made seven recommendations to the agency aimed at preventing a repeat of that disconcerting series of events. Among them are calls to:

 

  • Become more familiar with and engaged in standard-setting and other efforts by which manufacturers ensure the safe performance of their automotive electronics systems ("Hopefully, Congress will include the findings and recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences study, specifically the security needs for automotive electronic systems to prevent unauthorized access,” says Thomas M. Kowalick, who heads the IEEE’s EDR standards effort.)
  • Convene a standing technical advisory panel comprising people with expertise in the design, development, and safety assurance of automotive electronics—including software and systems engineering, electronics hardware, and human factors (The committee, however, was reluctant to prescribe a specific number and mix of experts the agency should hire or to tell it what research and testing facilities it should create. The group acknowledged that it “would make little sense [to do so] without knowing more about the specific functions [these electronics or system safety engineers] would perform.)
  • Ensure that EDRs be “commonplace in new vehicles…recognizing that the utility of more extensive and capable EDRs will depend in large part on the extent to which the stored data are available for safety investigation.” (According to Adrian K. Lund, a member of the committee who is president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit safety research group funded by auto insurers, the committee didn’t issue a firm recommendation that EDRs be made mandatory because of the as yet unresolved privacy issues related to who owns EDR data and who should have access to it.)
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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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