Automobile electronics systems are becoming more complex and interconnected, making it more difficult to pinpoint specific defects in design that may lead to accidents. Legally, this means that accident victims will need to find auto accident attorneys with significant product liability experience to represent them if there is any indication that a systems defect caused, at least in part, the accident. This also means that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will have to adjust for the new reality of accident causation complexity.

After hundreds of people claimed their Toyota vehicles suddenly accelerated in 2009-2010, NHTSA requested a study by the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board (TRB). The result is TRB Special Report 308: The Safety Challenge and Promise of Automotive Electronics: Insights from Unintended Acceleration, which examines how NHTSA’s regulatory, research, and defect investigation programs can be strengthened to meet the safety assurance and oversight challenges arising from the expanding functionality and use of automotive electronics.

The TRB found that the increasingly capable and complex electronics systems being added to automobiles present new demands for ensuring their safe performance:

These safety assurance demands pertain both to the automotive industry’s development and deployment of electronics systems and to NHTSA’s safety oversight role. With regard to the latter, the committee recommends that NHTSA give explicit consideration to the oversight challenges arising from automotive electronics and that the agency develop and articulate a long-term strategy for meeting these challenges.

According to the TRB report, NHTSA needs to do the following:

  • Become more familiar with how manufacturers design safety and security into electronics systems;
  • Take measures to insure that the agency can identify and investigate system faults that may leave no physical trace; and
  • Respond convincingly when concerns arise about system safety.

NHTSA’s quick response to safety concerns is critical because, although NHTSA rules require that vehicles have certain safety features and capabilities, the rules do not prescribe how manufacturers meet these standards.  This leaves manufacturers with the unfettered responsibility for designing electronics systems and for testing them to ensure that they work as intended. The TRB report recommends that NHTSA, in conjunction with its Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), finds ways to improve consumer complaint reports and other data that the ODI relies on to identify safety defects in vehicles and to assess their possible causes.

If you have been in an accident that you suspect was caused by a defective car or other vehicle, you have the right to hire an attorney to do an independent investigation into the accident. Your attorney will be able to obtain documents from the manufacturer and other evidence that may implicate a specific defect as the cause of your accident.

I represent accident victims throughout the United States who have been seriously injured and the families of accident victims who did not survive. To contact me, call 1-888-377-8900 (toll free) or email me at [email protected].

Attorney Eric Hageman has a national reputation in the area of vehicle defect litigation. He was recently appointed to a leadership position on a multidistrict litigation panel (MDL is like a class action lawsuit but it only involves pre-trial proceedings) for cases arising from accidents allegedly caused by a defective design. The cases were favorably settled.