The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

Impala vs. Cobalt: Not all NHTSA probes are equal

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Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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WASHINGTON - When a company is in trouble as General Motors is, every brush with regulators can seem like a sign of a growing crisis.

Just look at what happened this week when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is investigating the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, based on a report about a single vehicle that got into a fender-bender when the automatic braking system engaged unexpectedly.

The media responded with a narrative already scorched into their minds: The problems of Old GM were now bleeding into New GM as well. And the culprit was New GM's pride and joy, the Impala, which the magazine Consumer Reports recently declared the best family sedan money can buy.

"General Motors' recent recall woes may only be getting worse," one popular automotive blog announced. "For GM management, the news could not come at a worse time," another news site concluded.

No, the recall woes are not getting worse. But, yes, the news couldn't come at a worse time.

Here's what's really happening: The investigation affects an estimated 60,580 Impalas sold with an automatic braking system. That is part of a new breed of "crash avoidance" features that the auto industry and its regulators see as key to preventing some of the roughly 30,000 deaths that occur annually on U.S. roadways.

NHTSA is considering requiring the type of automatic braking technology used in the Impala. But the agency still has a lot to learn about automatic braking, and the curious case of the Impala that stopped short could hold some of the answers.

Automatic braking systems rely on cameras and radar to detect cars up ahead and to slow or stop a car before a collision. But those systems are not perfect. There are still false positives, cases in which a car hits the brakes to avoid a phantom threat such as metal joints in the road or an overpass.

GM has pushed into automatic braking, seeing it as a step toward partially autonomous or fully autonomous driving. Chad Zagorski, an active-safety engineer at GM, said in an interview last year that GM spent a long time working out the kinks. Its system initially had trouble recognizing oddly shaped trucks and small cars such as the MG Midget, a British roadster popular in the 1970s.

Zagorski said GM put some limits on when its system would deploy, to reduce the risk of false alarms. The fact that NHTSA is now investigating the Impala suggests that Zagorski's team might have missed something.

Could that lead to a recall? Possibly. GM might have to rewrite its braking software to prevent more false alarms.

But it's far from a safety crisis.

Consider that GM's troubles now stem from vehicles that were built with a dangerous defect - a cheaply built and flawed ignition switch that the company considered not worth the expense of replacing - and from its long delay in acknowledging that defect before this year's massive recall.

Even if there is a problem with the Impala that needs correcting, it would signify the exact opposite of what happened with the Cobalt. Rather than cutting corners on safety as it did with the Cobalt, GM deployed cutting-edge technology in the Impala to push the envelope of safety.

Of course, new technology is never perfect. The first seat belts and airbags had problems, too, but all in all, the technology has saved a lot of lives.

GM couldn't say what happened in the Impala incident. "The investigation is just beginning," a GM spokesman wrote in an e-mail, adding that the company is cooperating with NHTSA's inquiry.

The results of this investigation could teach NHTSA and the auto industry some valuable lessons about automatic braking. Whether or not GM's system is to blame, it will pave the way for newer, better systems that will save lives.

It should also teach members of the media a lesson about putting the interactions between automakers and regulators into their proper context.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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