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NHTSA Has No Software Engineers or EEs To Analyze Toyotas

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Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Sometimes you see something you just can't believe. And yet, there it is in cold type (or warm electrons).

Today's candidate is a single sentence by Washington Post writers Peter Whoriskey and Frank Ahrens, discussing the Congressional investigation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's response to multiple reports of Toyota safety problems.

It says: NHTSA officials told investigators that the agency doesn't employ any electrical engineers or software engineers.

The decision will give carmakers more time to prepare for the new regulations

The decision will give carmakers more time to prepare for the new regulations

Enlarge Photo

Loose all-weather floor mat jams accelerator pedal. Photo: NHTSA

Loose all-weather floor mat jams accelerator pedal. Photo: NHTSA

To say our jaw dropped would be woefully inadequate.

A modern luxury car has something close to 100 million lines of software code in it, running on 70 to 100 microprocessors. The navigation system of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class alone exceeds 20 million lines of code.

Manfred Broy, of the Technical University, Munich, told IEEE Spectrum that software and electronics can make up 35 to 40 percent of the cost of a premium car today.  At $10 a line, a cost he calls too low, 100 million lines represent $1 billion of investment for each car.

According to consultant Frost & Sullivan, those 100 million lines of code will rise to 200 or 300 million within a few years.

Software controls the vehicle, the operation of its engine, the mapping of the transmission shift points, the interactions among the components of the powertrain, the traction control system ... the list could go on for pages and pages.

And the software that controls the "drive-by-wire" accelerators of Toyota and Lexus vehicles is one potential culprit in the tangled collection of issues, allegations, and recalls of many of those vehicles for so-called "sudden acceleration" problems.

The NHTSA's mission is to “save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes.”

If it cannot properly analyze those systems, or even understand at a deep-code level how they work, then the agency is useless at overseeing the entire "Safety" part of its mandate.

The agency has an annual budget of more than $800 million, and it employs 635 thousands of people. That not a single one of them is an EE or software engineer borders on the criminally insane.

Grasping for straws, perhaps it employs software engineers and EEs as contractors, so they're not technically employees? Or does it outsource all those functions to firms who specialize in those disciplines?

We'd like to believe that. But we recently got a note from an author who's written on software in cars and spoken to the NHTSA about the topic. It said:

They told me they didn't track defects ... by software/electronic cause. They couldn't understand why that would be important, since software improvements and defect rates were no different in their minds from mechanical improvements. In fact, software increased car safety. Then they basically told me not to bother them with such trivial questions.

Please, please: Somebody tell us that those NHTSA officials misspoke. Because if they didn't, heads had better roll.

UPDATE: According to the Detroit News, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman, Olivia Alair, said, "NHTSA has numerous engineers on staff with experience with electrical engineering and (electronics) issues." The DoT is the parent agency of the NHTSA.

UPDATE 2: Just before the end of today's hearings, Transportation secretary Ray LaHood told Congress that NHTSA has two electrical engineers on staff and, "When we need outside expertise, we use it." Two EEs? And how many software engineers, pray tell?

[Washington Post, IEEE Spectrum, RiskFactor, Wikipedia]

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Comments (22)
  1. Horrifying. Insane. Surreal. Idiotic. Appalling. Unbelieveable. Peter Principle to the nth degree.
    You think eight years of Republican stalling over any kind of safety investigations based on, you know, actual data might have had anything to do with this?
    Nah. Of course not. Goddamn whiny liberals again. Feh.
     
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  2. NHTSA has only the personnel Congress authorizes for it. That's right, the very same Congress that feeds off the automakers' campaign contributions and now wants to look like it's doing something.
     
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  3. Horrible-just horrible! And we are supposed to think the government can handle health care???
     
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  4. There's probably a good reason for this. Any EE or software engineer who's any good is employed in private industry, where they can make far more money than working at a government agency.
     
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  5. Crazy, but it's not like it takes a mechanical engineer to see the accelerator-floor mat issue. Somehow I doubt hiring EE/CS engineers could help this lost cause.
     
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  6. What do you really expect? No company just hands out the source code for this kind of review. There is a huge investment in these technologies. Besides which, the staff necessary to pull apart that amount of code and "understand it" for every major vehicle manufacturer with the enormous number of companies that provide them parts... wouldn't be feasible.
     
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  7. Thanks for trying to pathetically politicize this issue, alerting. The article is addressing the poor mix of employees at the NHTSA, not the total numbers or which administration is to blame. The head at the top should roll, regardless of which party it belongs to. Of course, that doesn't happen because it's a political appointment. The problem is endemic to all unaccountable organizations within the beltway--administrations just swap talking heads. The talking heads usually know nothing about the tactical duties of their employees, management in general or any other useful information. They are generally useless attorneys (see Michael Brown, Joan Claybrook et al).
     
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  8. Pretend we are talking about airplanes and fly-by-wire, then see how you feel about this issue.
     
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  9. never a fan of bashing "faceless bureaucrats", blah, blah. however, one fact that really is difficult to refute is that the passage of time is always dangerous in any large organization - the national, state and local governments usually representing the largest organizations in human history. as time passes, bureaus/individuals established for noble purposes become less associated with their specific charter and more focused on self-preservation and/or expanding powers. that is human nature. it is why we always to need to be consistent with our skepticism / questioning of authority. it is not enough to simply question police powers/CIA/FBI/law enforcement. we must always also question larger, seemingly innocuous bureaucracies/regulatory agencies. they require a great deal of funding and can lose focus and commit unforgiveable levels of waste with precious tax dollars that could be used far more efficiently.
     
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  10. I think this perhaps could be because we haven't seen many cases like the Toyota one before - or perhaps no one has been reporting them. Doesn't surprise me at all that a government department is so inadequately run - just look at the defense org.
     
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  11. It's easy for a bunch of backseat drivers to point a finger at the NHTSA, however this is Toyota's blunder. Frankly, we (yes, I have a Toyota product in my household) should be insisting that Toyota, not the American public, foot the bill to conduct an independent assessment of the quality of their software. It's ludicrous to think that the NHTSA would be tearing into embedded microprocessor code that takes years to create. That is not their charter. If it was, it would take twice as long to get a car product to market and we'd have a whole new group of lobbyists. No, this is not the government's shortcoming; it's all Toyota. I, for one, will never have another Toyota product. Shame on you for lying and laughing, Toyota, shame on you!
     
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  12. I worked with NHTSA Safety people in the 1970s and 80s. Even then, the political people outnumbered the hard working technical people. This always been the case. During the Reagan years (1981+) the place was still badly infected with Carter appointees. Do you think DC has been at all altruistic since the 1940s?
     
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  13. Folks, it's more than just source code...you need to do detailed analysis of compiler output (actual vs. expected) plus you need to rigorously validate the circuits in the computer chips to ensure they have no logic errors. I do find it a bit hard to believe that many auto systems now have upwards of 10 million lines of code, but even with several hundred thousand it is CRIMINAL that the NHTSA does not have any resources that can do this work.
     
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  14. You say the NHTSA annual budget is $800 million and they employ 635 thousands. No wonder no one does anything - who would for $1,260 per year. Check the math.
     
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  15. A government agency, seeking outside expertise? Oh, they're not biased at all.
    I find this whole thing really hard to believe.
     
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  16. @Falcon: There's a strikethrough on the phrase "thousands of" to indicate a correction. According to our source, the NHTSA employs 635 people.
     
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  17. This is the best way to maximize safety. For a team of software engineers to know enough to evaluate the custom software written for the custom hardware for just a single type of car would be an enormous time consuming effort. All you can do is to track problems, hold the company responsible when something goes wrong, and penalize them appropriately.
     
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  18. Technically speaking a EE may be a software engineer. Embedded Software is an odd breed of engineer. Most/All Computer Science majors in college would not be qualified to to this type of SW engineering. On the other hand a fair number of Electrical Engineers would. I've always found that Computer Science majors learn how to make a computer do what they want. While EEs learn how the computer actually works, which is far more important at a low level.
    That said, I'm not even sure a SW engineer would be helpful. Consider all the trouble a few years back getting Diebold to release the SW source code on its voting machines. And that was a job paid for by the government. Toyota isn't going to give up its code any more readily and without that you'd need hordes of engineers.
     
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  19. That said there certainly should be some SW engineers on staff, but as an embedded SW engineer myself, I'm not sure it would be possible to detect some non-obvious defect without a major effort.
     
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  20. This makes me want to buy only vintage cars whose controls are the good old-fashioned kind - strictly mechanical. I work in the software industry. I used to write software. I can easily imagine why it's a very dumb idea to have the acceleration of the car controlled by software interpreting the action of the driver's foot on the gas pedal, instead of by direct mechanical linkage. Mechanical linkage will always behave consistently. Put software in there, and depending on how the manufacturer is trying to make it be "smart" about tuning the flow of fuel or the fuel/air mixture, or whatever they're trying to do, how does the driver have any assurance whatsoever that he or she has any reliable control over whether the car accelerates, or not? Very scary. If making cars more fuel efficient requires using software to control fuel usage, gearing, and acceleration, there needs to be some very tight regulation and oversight. Otherwise, the number of serious accidents will increase, not decrease.
     
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  21. I used to work for NHTSA as an intern in program analysis and I have an advanced degree in software engineering. Guess what? At the end of my internship, they never asked me if I wanted a permanent job. Nope. Kept in contact with one of the senior managers on my project (even asked about contract opportunities). Never heard back. Why? Cause they preferred people with stat, math, and social science backgrounds. When will our government get the message that computers run the world. Now, they are in deep do do. (LOL!)
     
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  22. Could you emagine NASA saying "We do not employ electrical Engineers"? We there is about the same level of safety technology in a car as there is in a space shuttle. :)
     
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