Auto-safety experts question makeup of panels studying runaway vehicles

Recent research for Toyota rejected electronics and malfunctioning throttles as the cause of sudden acceleration.
Recent research for Toyota rejected electronics and malfunctioning throttles as the cause of sudden acceleration. (Alex Brandon/associated Press)
By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Auto-safety experts are criticizing the makeup of two advisory panels charged with determining the role of electronics in the sudden, unintended acceleration of vehicles.

There are no electronics experts on Toyota Motor Corp.'s seven-member panel and just three on the National Academies' 12-member panel.

"The outcome and recommendations from these committees will be shaped by who serves on them," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and president emeritus of Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group. "There is a real absence of engineering expertise, particularly in this area of electronics."

The panels were created in response to congressional hearings this spring that focused on why runaway vehicles were on the rise and why the federal government failed to address the problem. Ninety-three people have died in collisions involving the reported sudden, unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles, according to NHTSA data. More than 10 million of the manufacturer's vehicles have been recalled.

Former U.S. transportation chief Rodney E. Slater, who chairs Toyota's panel, defended his appointments, saying he wanted people with experience on similar panels and broad knowledge about automotive technology.

"I was looking for people who have the ability to reach out to other experts and reserve judgment," Slater said. "I'm proud of this panel. They have a wealth of experience, and we will be seeking out electronics experts and other experts during the course of our work."

Auto-safety experts fear that conflicts of interests involving four members of the National Academies panel will taint its findings.

Two members with electrical expertise spent most of their engineering careers at Ford Motor Co., which ranks just below Toyota in the incidence of runaway vehicles.

"There are two members for whom we have disclosed conflicts of interest that are unavoidable," said Stephen R. Godwin, a director with the National Academies' Transportation Research Board. "You have to understand how the industry operates, and the committee needs to know what questions to ask."

Watchdog groups are also concerned about a panel member whose son and business partner once worked for Exponent, which has conducted recent research for Toyota. The research rejected electronics and malfunctioning throttles as the cause of sudden acceleration.

The National Academies group removed one panel member, former NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason. Nason led the agency when it was asked to take a more aggressive role with the runaway acceleration but failed to do so.

Godwin said the National Academies group is planning to add three members with electronics expertise but did not say when they would be appointed.

"If the safety community wouldn't have raised a fuss, would they have agreed to add new people?" said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "If they have three new people from the auto industry, I would find that disappointing."

The National Academies committee must submit a final report to NHTSA in 18 months.

Slater said the Toyota panel has about a one-year timeline. He said he hopes to consult with the National Academies committee.

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