Are Technological Innovations Improving or Impairing Vehicle Safety?

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The safety of motor vehicles in the United States has become increasingly dependant on technological innovations, many of which temporarily override the driver’s control of the vehicle to perform accident-preventing corrections. Volvo’s collision warning with brake support system employs radar to monitor slow moving vehicles or the sudden entry of a vehicle into the driver’s lane, flashing lights and alarms and assisting with braking when the potential for a collision is detected; a similar system by Mercedes-Benz utilizes cameras, applying the brakes to specific wheels to steer the car back into the appropriate lane; and General Motors’ vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology combines a simple antenna, a computer chip, and GPS to enable vehicles to communicate with one another and to self-brake to avoid accidents. However, as complex electronic and computer systems control more and more vehicle functions, scientists, safety advocates, and attorneys are questioning whether such technologies are improving or impairing safety, especially after fatal and personal injury crashes involving unintended acceleration.

Perhaps one of the first, and most tragic, incidents of unintended acceleration occurred in August 2009. While traveling on northbound state route 125, an off-duty California Highway Patrolman encountered problems with the 2009 Lexus ES 350 he had rented. He called 911 and reported that the accelerator was stuck. Then, according to witness accounts, the vehicle slammed into an SUV at 100 mph, left the highway, and crashed through a fence before rolling several times and becoming engulfed in flames. All four occupants died.

Consumer complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles prior to the accident garnered insufficient attention from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970 to devise and implement safety programs. After the crash and the recall of more than 12 million cars, the agency finally conducted studies to find the cause of the problem, ultimately agreeing with the carmaker that sticking pedals and accelerator pedal entrapment were to blame. Toyota, however, only released 280,000 lines of the computer source code for its vehicles for examination. Considering that over 30 computers with more than 100 million lines of code control the various functions of the average vehicle, the government study was rather limited.

Many of the plaintiffs’ attorneys involved in the class action lawsuit against Toyota contend that errors in the vehicles’ electronic throttle-control systems caused the fatal and personal injury accidents in California and elsewhere. While they have demanded complete access to Toyota’s source code, safety advocates have argued that NHTSA must update its understanding and regulation of electronic systems in motor vehicles. In a July 2011 article, Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. creator Sean Kane criticizes the agency for failing to make rules for the electronic systems of vehicles, thereby limiting its knowledge of such technologies and ability to set industry safety standards.

Whether or not problems with the electronic throttle-control systems in Toyota vehicles were responsible for the accidents involving sudden unintended acceleration will probably be determined as the class action lawsuit progresses; however, the fact that vehicles are increasingly controlled by a combination of electronic and computer systems is undeniable. While such technologies carry numerous safety implications, they should be better understood and regulated in order to protect consumers.

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