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Tougher regulation for cars' embedded systems of the essence

Posted: 02 Apr 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:safety-critical systems  embedded  electronic control 

A U.S.-based software consultant has argued in favour of government regulation and close supervision of safety critical embedded systems in cars to prevent incidents of sudden unintended acceleration that has claimed many lives over the years.

Michael Barr, co-founder and CTO of the Barr Group, told an audience of embedded system engineers at the EE Live! conference that as automobile manufacturers have pushed each other into a race to fit cars with complex electronic control systems, watchdogs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have failed to keep pace. Lacking a team of experienced experts to test and monitor today's flood of automotive software designs, NHTSA is failing in its mission to oversee "safety-critical systems."

Despite assurances by companies like Toyota that their software undergoes rigorous testing, said Barr, the rush to get cars on the road means that "You, the users, have been testing the software."

In some cases, like that of Jean Bookout, who was seriously injured when her 2005 Toyota Camry accelerated unintentionally, that sort of ad hoc consumer testing can result in catastrophe. A passenger in the Bookout car, Barbara Schwarz, was killed. After Barr testified at length for the plaintiffs—in the only software-focused Toyota case that has been tried—an Oklahoma City jury agreed to award $3 million to Ms. Bookout and to Ms. Schwarz's family.

Commitment to a culture of safety

Although insisting on tighter NHTSA regulation, Barr did not absolve carmakers, whose current passion has been described as turning every new car model into a giant, apps-loaded smartphone.

Barr said that Toyota, and by implication other auto companies eager to load their products with electronic controls, lack a "mature design process, done right, documented, and peer reviewed."

He called for carmakers—regardless of the government's role—to adopt a "company culture and an engineering culture of wanting to know what can go wrong, and wanting to fix what can go wrong, from the outset," rather than after-the-fact with apologies and million-dollar settlements.

Since the problem of "unintended acceleration" in Toyotas burst into headlines after a ghastly California crash that killed Mark Saylor, a 19-year California Highway Patrol veteran, and three family members, Toyota has recalled millions of cars and paid billions in penalties and settlements. Among these was a $1.2 billion criminal fine imposed last month by the Department of Justice—for lying to government regulators.

Using an exhaustive 56-slide PowerPoint presentation and citing his 18 months examining Toyota's automotive software "source code," Barr convinced the Oklahoma jury that Toyota had deployed dangerously flawed software in its cars. Despite Barr's findings, Toyota continues to claim that all its unintended acceleration problems were mechanical, the result of misplaced floor mats and "sticky" gas pedals.

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