Why auto electronics remain a concern after the Toyota recalls

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Let's say it one more time: Electronics or software glitches played absolutely no role in Toyota Motor Corp.'s recall of some 8 million vehicles in 2009 and 2010 after reports of unintended acceleration.

Toyota has said so. Federal safety regulators have said so. NASA, in a highly publicized report last year, said it found no electronic causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Then today, a National Academy of Sciences panel said regulators were correct to stop probing whether electronics played a role in the unintended acceleration problems.

But then the panel said it's impossible to say for sure if electronics or software problems played a role in the recalls. The panel, according to a Bloomberg report, discussed the possibility of "untraceable faults" as a potential factor in unintended acceleration. So it recommended the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration beef up how it monitors electronics issues in vehicles.

Huh?

Apparently, even if an electronics-oriented safety problem occurs in a vehicle, there may be no way regulators can figure it out or, presumably, correct it.

Safety advocate Sean Kane correctly noted that something doesn't smell right.

"The report is contradictory," he told Bloomberg. "On one hand, they call the agency out for being unequipped for being unable to handle electronics. On the other hand, they say they're not going to second-guess NHTSA's conclusions."

True, no credible evidence surfaced suggesting electronics or software played a role in the Toyota recalls.

But U.S. drivers ought to be very concerned that regulators might not be able to detect a safety hazard caused by electronics/software ahead of time -- or correct it if discovered.

NHTSA seems to understand the challenge. Let's hope it does something about it. Fast.

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com.

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