Champaign native on panel researching Toyota problems

With an eye toward finding the problem that caused Toyotas to accelerate suddenly, a Champaign native has been named to an elite national panel.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million cars in the last year, and the carmaker argues its equipment was not defective.

David Gerard, who grew up in Champaign and received a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, is an associate professor of economics at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and an expert on safety regulations.

He previously directed the Center for the Study and Improvement of Regulation in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, focusing on the interrelationships between regulation and technological change.

He graduated in 1986 from Champaign Central High School, where he played football and baseball, and was a member of the Future Problem Solvers team.

After graduating from Grinnell College in 1990, he earned his doctorate in Urbana in 1997.

Gerard spent four years in Montana before going to Carnegie Mellon. He spent eight years there in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy; for six of those he was director of the Center for the Study and Improvement of Regulation.

Gerard is married to Kirsten Finlayson, who got her law degree at the UI in 1998. They have two children, Greta, 7, and Dexter, 4.

He joined the National Academy of Sciences panel in June, one of 17 members from a host of fields. The report will come out next June, and the commission meets once a month.

Gerard said commission members can't speak about their findings until a final report is issued, but he could talk in generalities about the issues.

The professor, who has a background in public policy and regulation, said there are three categories of possibility in the Toyota case, which involves unintended acceleration.

Gerard said possible causes include a software glitch, a failure of electronic sensors or a human behavior problem.

Gas pedals used to have a mechanical link to the engine, but now work with electronic sensors, Gerard noted.

"There's a concern that you could have electromagnetic interference. For instance, cell phones, GPS systems and many other things in your car all run off electronic components," he said.

Human factors come into play with features like adaptive cruise control, using radars or lasers to gauge traffic and make the vehicle slow when approaching another vehicle and accelerate again to the preset speed when traffic allows.

In some cases, the feature could reduce the driver's intuitive sense of when to brake or speed up, he said.

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