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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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