My father, whose business success was predicated with a heavy dose of pragmatism, had a colleague whose technology brilliance wowed him. My father marveled at how his colleague kept abreast of all the latest technology software being developed to improve office productivity, but he was aghast that his colleague was so quick to promote expensive adoption of products whose reliability had yet been proven.

“Dave (not his real name) is absolutely brilliant when it comes to technology,” my father would say time and time again. “But he has no common sense.”

I immediately thought of my dad’s insights about Dave reading the most recommended reader comments appended  to this New York Times story about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealing that over the course of 10 months last year 400 car crashes in the United States involved advanced driver-assistance technologies. Six people died and five were seriously injured. Teslas operating with Elon Musk’s much ballyhooed Autopilot were involved in 273 crashes. Five of those Tesla crashes were fatal.

Some obviously very intelligent Times readers got bees in their bonnets because they almost uniformly railed that 400 car crashes are a meaningless statistic without a benchmark comparison. Explained one Times reader: “400 sounds like a high number, but, as the article points out, we need to know how many accidents would have been expected under the same circumstances and time period. For example, if we expected thousands, but only had 400, that would be good news. We need the denominator, not just the numerator.”

Some readers were also bothered the Times noted in its secondary headline that Teslas had the highest number of Autopilot crashes. That was to be expected because Teslas had more cars and drivers using full autonomous mode.

“Just had to put Tesla in the headline, didn’t you?” sneered a reader.

NHTSA’s tolerance for autopilot crashes?

Even my mathematically challenged brain understands that 400 car crashes is a meaningless statistic without some acceptable comparative benchmark. Here’s my question: How is it that the NHTSA didn’t insist on determining a benchmark before allowing automakers to begin testing autonomous vehicles? As well, what is NHTSA’s statistical tolerance for autopilot crashes?

The technology has existed for quite some time to fly commercial airliners without pilots. Nevertheless, the FAA appreciates that technology, particularly in newly certified planes like the 737-MAX, is far from 100 percent reliable. That’s why despite all their aggressive cost cutting, commercial airliners must still be flown with not just one pilot, but two.

The FAA has zero expectation that technology is 100 percent reliable.

It’s also true that Tesla drivers are more aggressive adopters of new technology, including the car’s Autopilot feature. But Elon Musk’s cavalier disregard for safety and for U.S. regulatory safety standards is also well known.

From a a February 11, 2022, article published by protocol, a trade publication focused on tech, business, and public policy.

Tesla’s back at it again with another recall. The nation’s largest EV manufacturer has had repeated run-ins with federal safety regulators recently, and has issued at least 10 recalls in the last four months, including four in the past few weeks alone, due to several risky features in its recent software updates. Of those four, two were due to Tesla making software decisions that violate federal safety standards.

The recent uptick in recalls could be a sign that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is keeping a closer eye on Tesla as the company continues to add controversial features in its software updates that have pushed the agency’s safety limits. While NHTSA is upping its scrutiny of Tesla’s releases, the company continues to “play a little fast and loose” with the safety of its features, said Michael Brooks, acting executive director for The Center for Auto Safety.

“They seem to like to ask for forgiveness rather than permission a lot,” Brooks said.

Badly Underfunded

What’s also become clear to me in recent weeks is how alarmingly underfunded the NHTSA is to effectively monitor and regulate the automotive industry, a business rife with corruption and dishonesty.

The NHTSA’s budget for fiscal 2021 was a mere $964.5 million, of which only $156.1 million was earmarked for vehicle safety programs. The NHTSA’s entire budget is less than the estimated $1 billion GM CEO Mary Barra forked out last year to recall all the company’s EV Chevy Bolts because they were prone to catching fire.

DOT graphic

The NHTSA’s underfunding was made clear in this AP article about a class action lawsuit alleging that GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Audi, and a parts manufacturer knowingly sell vehicles containing air bags inflators that are at risk of explosions. Two deaths and at least four injuries have already been linked to the explosions.

The air bags in question aren’t the ones manufactured by Takata, which also involved exploding air bag inflators that resulted in 28 deaths worldwide, hundreds of injuries and the largest recall in automotive history. Rather, they were manufactured by ARK Automotive Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, which made the inflators and sold them to air bag manufacturers, which in turn sold them to GM, Ford, Volkswagen, and Audi.

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, told the AP the NHTSA should have already acted. “It’s not a question of whether (the ARK airbag) can kill or injure people. It already has.”

As reported by the AP:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating ARC inflators in 2015 after an Ohio woman was injured when an inflator exploded in a Chrysler minivan. At the time the agency estimated that there were 490,000 ARC inflators on the nation’s roads.

The review was elevated to an engineering analysis – a step closer to a product recall – in 2016 after the death in Canada.

Though a seven-year investigation is longer than most NHTSA reviews, inflators are particularly complex, said David Friedman, a former NHTSA acting administrator who is now a vice president at Consumer Reports.

Automakers appear to be balking at recalls for cost reasons, Friedman said. And NHTSA, he suggested, needs a “slam dunk” case before seeking recalls because of threats and lawsuits that automakers have filed in the past.

“That’s one of the things that’s broken in the system,” he said.

Ford’s legal braggadocio

A recent demonstration of Ford’s legal prowess was the company’s paltry $19.2 million multistate settlement for lying for years in its advertising about the economy and payload of some of its vehicles. The company gloated that the regulatory might of 40 state attorney generals couldn’t nail the company with any legal wrongdoing.

“We are pleased that the matter is closed without any judicial finding of improper conduct,” Ford spokesperson and Texas-based reputation management expert Cathie Hargett told the Detroit News.

Tom Krisher/LinkedIn

Ford’s advertising dishonesty pales against the allegations of wrongdoing the NHTSA last week accused Goodyear of committing, the significance of which the AP’s Tom Krisher was virtually alone in appreciating.

Krisher found an NHTSA posted letter revealing that Goodyear knew that some of its recreational vehicle G159 tires could fail and cause severe crashes for 20 years but refused to recall them. Goodyear was still resisting a recall as late as March, despite investigators finding that some of the company’s RV tires were responsible for crashes that killed eight people and injured 69 others from 1998 through 2009.

“Goodyear’s penchant for secrecy undoubtedly provided an ancillary benefit in preventing injured litigants and their counsel from providing information about G159-related crashes,” the letter said. “NHTSA was not alerted to the extraordinary failure rate of the subject tires” until the agency became aware of documents made public because of 2017 litigation in Arizona.

In yet another example of pervasive dishonesty and filth, Stellantis earlier this month pleaded guilty in federal court in Detroit to a criminal conspiracy charge and agreed to to pay a $300 million penalty to resolve an investigation of the company’s attempts to evade diesel emission standards. Stellantis’ U.S. division is the former Fiat Chrysler.

Ford’s problem plagued vehicles

For months I’ve been questioning Wall Street’s and the media’s gullibility that Ford and GM could successfully and profitably make electric vehicles. My questioning of Ford’s capabilities was based on the company’s inability to make reliable gas engine vehicles utilizing technologies that it has had one hundred years to perfect.

Ford vehicles have been subject to a myriad of recalls; the NHTSA recently posted on its website that it is investigating “catastrophic engine failure” reports with the Ford Bronco. Ford on Wednesday recalled nearly three million vehicles the company said could roll away in park. Ford last month recalled 39,000 Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs from the 2021 model year because the vehicles could catch fire – even when they’re turned off.

On Tuesday Ford reaffirmed my doubts about the company’s ability to build reliable electric vehicles. The company announced that it was recalling nearly 50,000 of its proudly “made-in-Mexico” electric Mustangs because of a safety defect that can cause an accident. The recall impacts roughly half the paltry 100,000 electric Mustangs Ford so far has produced. It’s the sixth recall for the electric Mustang since Ford began selling it last year.

As if the recall wasn’t alarming enough, Ford’s CFO disclosed on Wednesday that the rising cost of metals needed to manufacture the electric Mustang have wiped out the company’s profitability on the vehicle.

Meanwhile, GM’s Mary Barra recently was forced to cut the price on her Bolt EUV by $6,000 to about $28,000 because the car wasn’t selling well. While most electric vehicles are commanding huge markups because they are in short supply, GM is selling its readily available electric vehicles at fire sale prices. Barra brags she’s going to sell more electric cars in a few years than Elon Musk – now we know how. Musk increased the cost of his Model Y last year about a dozen times.

Censoring electric vehicle questioners

I’ve been concerned about the hype surrounding electric vehicles for quite some time, but I’ve quickly been pounded with criticisms about my technology ignorance or labeled a “right wing” Republican despite the fact I have no allegiance or connections to either political party. I thought I was suffering alone, but was encouraged by the positive LinkedIn response I received to this Deadline Detroit column I wrote expressing my alarm upon learning how poorly thought out and planned America’s transition to electric vehicles is. Many of those with the courage to express public support for my column were way better credentialed than me.

The Biden Administration and the U.S. media want no debate about the merits of converting to electric vehicles, particularly on an accelerated basis. In time, social media’s truth guardians will begin censoring published concerns about electric vehicles as “misinformation” and “fake news.”

There’s a need for a self-help group modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous for people who aren’t punch drunk drinking the government’s and media’s electric vehicle Kool-Aid and would appreciate the fellowship of others with the sobriety to recognize that some frighteningly ignorant political leaders like Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm have no clue about the potential risks involved with an accelerated conversion to electric vehicles.   

Former Michigan governor Granholm is having a good laugh, but most Americans don’t share her amusement.

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