Honda's recall of nearly 250,000 Honda and Acura vehicles worldwide because of
inadvertent braking may be a sign of the bedeviling problems to come with the
complex electronics controlling cars.
Safety advocate Sean Kane says the recall speaks to a larger issue with auto electronics. He points to NHTSA's 2007 decision to close an investigation into inadvertent braking in 2000-2001 Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUVS. There have been nearly 500 complaints about those models.
Melissa Marsala of Cape Coral, Fla., had the problem in her 2001 M430 and says, "It was a horrifying experience." She fears "someone is going to get seriously hurt" due to malfunctioning safety electronics. Her vehicle's problem was traced to a faulty yaw sensor.
"What we still lack is an underlying safety requirement for electronic systems," says Kane of Safety Research & Strategies. "When all else fails, the driver shouldn't be the fail-safe."
Honda's recall of 183,000 vehicles in the U.S. includes 101,000 Pilot SUVs, 60,000 Acura MDX SUVs and 21,000 Acura RL sedans, all from the 2005 model year. It also includes 800 of Acura's 2006 MDX models.
Carrie Carvalho of Arlington, Mass., petitioned NHTSA to investigate the issue. She was riding in her 2005 Pilot at about 45 miles per hour in October 2010 when it started braking, causing her to veer off the road. Thinking it was a fluke, her boyfriend, Rob Marchant, resumed driving; it happened again. "It's not like it brakes for a second," says Carvalho. "It takes control of the vehicle."
Honda now says the defect is in the vehicles' stability control system, which helps the driver keep control, sometimes by selectively applying braking. Oxidation in wiring or a loose bolt can cause the sudden braking. Honda spokesman Chris Martin acknowledges there have been far more complaints than initially reported.
When Carvalho contacted the dealer and Honda, she says, they wouldn't do anything, despite the fact she found similar complaints online from other Pilot owners. Although she's afraid to be in the car, she's had to keep making payments.
Martin says the braking incidents are infrequent and hard to duplicate.
"It probably really comes down to being able to duplicate and demonstrate what happened to the vehicle," says Martin. "All of these vehicles are outside of the warranty. The dealer has to actually to be able to see something happening" to fix it.
Another 70,000 Honda vehicles, including the Odyssey minivan, were recalled in Canada, Australia, Mexico and Germany. But the U.S.-model Odyssey is not part of the recall.
Honda's stability control system integrates braking, traction control, stability control and "brake assist," which is designed to reduce stopping distances during emergency braking. NHTSA said in its report that allegations of unexpected braking seem related to inappropriate activation of the brake- assist function.
Kane says NHTSA needs rules to prevent problems with interconnected safety electronics, such as those on Honda's recalled vehicles. The International Organization for Standardization issued a voluntary standard in 2011 calling for automakers to perform a "functional safety assessment " to identify risks during the design phase. It should be a requirement, Kane says.
"When you have failures like a yaw sensor going bad, you can plan for that and design it out," says Kane.
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