Thursday, July 22, 2010

Auto safety experts question makeup of panels studying runaway vehicles

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 3:57 PM

Auto safety experts are criticizing the makeup of two advisory panels that are charged with determining the role of electronics in the sudden unintended acceleration of vehicles.

There are no electronics experts on Toyota Motor Corp.'s seven-member panel and just three on the National Academies of Science's 12-member panel.

"We are very concerned. The outcome and recommendations from these committees will be shaped by who serves on them," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and president emeritus of Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group. "There is a real absence of engineering expertise, particularly in this area of electronics."

The panels were created in response to congressional hearings this spring, where lawmakers sought information about why runaway vehicles were on the rise and about the federal government's failure to address the problem. So far, 93 people have died in collisions involving the reported sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles, according to NHTSA data. More than 8 million of the manufacturer's vehicles have been recalled.

Toyota chose former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater to chair its panel. Slater defended the members he selected, saying he wanted individuals with experience on similar panels and a broad-based knowledge about automotive technology.

"I was looking for people who have the ability to reach out to other experts and reserve judgment," Slater said in an interview. "I'm proud of this panel. They have a wealth of experience, and we will be seeking out electronics experts and other experts during the course of our work."

As for the NAS panel, auto safety experts fear that conflicts of interests with four of the panel members will taint its findings: Two members make up the bulk of the electrical expertise, but the engineers spent most of their careers at Ford Motor Co., which ranks just below Toyota in the incidence of runaway vehicles.

"There are two members for whom we have disclosed conflicts of interest that are unavoidable," said Stephen R. Godwin, director of the NAS Transportation Research Board. "You have to understand how the industry operates, and the committee needs to know what questions to ask."

Watchdog groups are also concerned about a panel member who owns a consulting firm with his son and once worked for Exponent Inc., the company that has conducted recent research for Toyota. The research rejected electronics and malfunctioning electronic throttles as the cause of sudden acceleration.

In response to early criticism, NAS removed one committee member, former NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason. Nason was at the helm during a critical point when the agency was asked to take a more aggressive role with the runaway acceleration problems but failed to do so.

Godwin said the council is planning to add three members with electronics expertise but did not say when the members would be appointed.

"If the safety community wouldn't have raised a fuss, would they have agreed to add new people?" said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety. "I doubt it, and I'm waiting to see who those people will be. If they have three new people from the auto industry, I would find that disappointing."

The NAS committee has 18 months to research the runaway-vehicle problem before submitting a final report to NHTSA.

Slater said the Toyota panel has about a one-year timeline. He said he hopes to consult with the National Academies committee.

Clarence Ditlow
Executive Director
Center for Auto Safety
1825 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington DC 20009

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