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Car control software chaos revealed in major safety study

Transport safety authorities are way behind industry development

Automated software control systems are proliferating in cars, but vehicle safety authorities do not have anywhere near enough expertise to measure or regulate their usage.

That is according to the stark warnings of a US government-commissioned report, which found that it was "unrealistic" for the country's vehicle safety agency to be able to maintain the skills to keep up with rapid technology change.

The report paints a picture of a chaotic set of circumstances, in which car makers are producing vehicles controlled highly by software, but industry regulators have a very limited ability to judge their safety or ascertain the cause of incidents.

The news comes after Toyota discovered sudden acceleration problems in its cars in 2009, and after Jaguar found a severe control software risk in its cars last year.

In its report, the US National Research Council said the government had been "justified" in closing its investigation into the Toyota problems, after reaching the conclusion that the car's pedals were becoming stuck. But it said that although the government concluded that computer systems were not a plausible cause, persistent questions around IT remained.

It described as "troubling" the fact that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) still "could not convincingly address public concerns about the safety of automotive electronics".

Louis Lanzerotti, distinguished research professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and chair of the National Research Council, said it would be difficult for NHTSA to keep pace with the technology. But he called for it to develop much better knowledge by engaging with industry.

"A standing advisory committee is one way NHTSA can interact with industry and with technical experts in electronics to keep abreast of these technologies and oversee their safety," he said. "Neither the automotive industry, NHTSA, nor motorists can afford a recurrence of something like the [Toyota] unintended acceleration controversy."

The National Research Council said the advisory committee needed a panel of individuals with backgrounds central to the design, development, and safety assurance of car electronics systems - including experts in software and systems engineering, in human factors, and in electronics hardware. It would be consulted on technical matters for regulatory reviews, defect investigation processes and research assessments.

It was vital that NHTSA becomes 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", said the report.

The NHTSA needed to become "proactive" to technology development, it said, including assessing how drivers interact with electronics systems. It added: "In the future, the possibility of electronics leading to increasingly autonomous vehicles presents a new set of safety challenges and will demand even more agency planning and foresight".

The National Research Council said it supported an NHTSA initiative to install event data recorders in cars, saying the devices must become "commonplace in all new vehicles" in order that investigators of incidents have the data they need.


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