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Car problems may not be detected

By Tara Baukus Mello ·
Friday, January 20, 2012
Posted: 9 am ET

A new report by the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, says that electronic causes cannot be ruled out as a cause of sudden acceleration in cars, and that it's possible that today's electronics systems and data recording devices in cars don't collect enough data to prove or disprove the problem, so "black boxes" that record crash data may be installed in all cars in the future.

As part of the largest recall in history, Toyota and Lexus recalled over eight million vehicles after reports of unintended acceleration in 2009 and 2010. With the thought that the problem was caused by an electronic or software malfunction, multiple groups, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA, conducted batteries of tests and research over many months that found no electronic cause for the problem. After the investigation closed in February 2011, the National Academy of Sciences was asked to review the NHTSA's procedures in an effort to determine if the federal agency should be doing anything different in its role as the safety watchdog for cars.

The NAS report said that NHTSA was correct in closing its investigation, saying in the report that "it's impossible to prove a complete negative, but all the data available to us indicated the conclusion that there was no electronic or software problem (causing the sudden acceleration)."

Still, the NAS report didn't rule out what it called "untraceable faults" in the electronics that could have caused the problem and said that NHTSA needs to become "more familiar with how manufacturers design safety and security into electronics systems, identify and investigate system faults that may leave no physical trace, and respond convincingly when concerns arise about system safety."

The report suggested NHTSA create an advisory committee of experts in electronics hardware, software and systems engineering and human factors that it can consult as the need arises as well as revise its methods of investigating potential car problems.

NAS also suggested the agency require automakers to install "black boxes" that record car crash data in all autos (some cars already have them). While some people will argue adding data recording devices to cars is a privacy issue, it could work to a consumer's advantage since accessing the data that showed there was no driver error could prevent car insurance rates from rising.

Tara Baukus Mello writes the cars blog as well as the weekly Driving for Dollars column, providing both practical financial advice for consumers as well as insight into the latest developments in the automotive world. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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