As a Risk Factor post late last week noted, the U.S. National Research Council’sCommittee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration agreed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) conclusion that electronic throttle control systems (ETCs) were not the cause of the alleged sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) in Toyota vehicles. With the NRC's publication of the report on SUA, most observers felt that the case on SUA was closed.
However, this week the New York Times and others ran stories about a freedom of information lawsuit (pdf) by Safety Research and Strategies claiming that NHTSA is hiding evidence of SUA in a Prius that was was witnessed by NHTSA investigators. The Times story states that:
"The suit seeks transcripts, recordings, photographs and videotapes generated by a visit of two federal investigators to the home of a senior government official who had complained about sudden, unexplained acceleration of his own Prius. According to a sworn statement by the official, Joseph H. McClelland, investigators visited his Chambersburg, Pa., home last May 17, documented the sudden acceleration problem and recorded evidence of it."
The NHTSA investigators, witnessing the SUA incident (during which, the Times said, "the car over-accelerated three times and its electronic displays began blinking wildly"), apparently asked the Prius owner not to drive his car anymore. They also told him that the agency might be interested in purchasing the Prius to investigate further the apparent SUA they had just witnessed.
However, Safety Research and Strategies says, the NHTSA decided months later that the SUA seen was most likely related to the Prius's high mileage (280 000 miles) and age (it is a 2003 model). It therefore rejected a software-related cause to the unintended acceleration, and was no longer interested in buying the car.
Safety Research and Strategies, which bills itself as a research, consulting and advocacy firm, and has advised consumers suing Toyota over SUA, has bought the car for $27 000, the Times states. The objective of its lawsuit is the remaining 16 out of 22 pages of the NHTSA investigators' notes and videos of the Prius SUA.
Safety Research claims that the NHTSA is not interested in the Prius because it is not interested in anything that would contradict its own study indicating that, "There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period." You can read more about the episode from Safety Research and Strategies' perspective at its web site.
I don't know the likelihood of this particular Prius suffering from software-based SUA, but at the very least the NHTSA didn't do itself any public relations favors by seeming to dismiss out of hand what appeared to be an actual case of SUA, and then failing to release all of its internal documents on the incident. Now it looks like the NHTSA has something to hide.
I'll keep tabs on this story, and let you know what, if anything, turns up.
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.