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Feb. 4 2010 - 2:03 pm | 1,613 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

The Toyota ‘Fix’ is a Fake

DALY CITY, CA - FEBRUARY 03:  City Toyota serv...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

We’ve been driven down this road before. After numerous reports of suspicious accidents involving a particular make and model of car, the manufacturer starts an internal investigation.

The problem is thoroughly analyzed — translation: time passes, accidents continue and sometimes people die.

Eventually, often years later, the manufacturer announces its conclusion: the problem is “driver error.”

Driver error. End of story.

Except, it wasn’t.

It was only the first leg of a dangerous and sometimes fatal road trip taken by unsuspecting drivers and their families

What did they know and when did they know it?

Reports of accidents involving Toyota vehicles that suddenly accelerated began at least a decade ago. According to a search of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted by the Los Angeles Times, the Japanese car maker issued recalls related to sudden acceleration eight times — more than any other automaker, the LA Times story points out.

Finally, Toyota admitted there was a problem (in addition to driver error): floor mats. The mats could, said the company, get stuck under the accelerator, causing the vehicle not to slow down when pressure was removed from the gas pedal.

Floor mats. End of story.

Except, it wasn’t.

The Runaways Continue

Accidents continued, even with new properly installed floor mats — and sometimes even after floor mats had been removed.

In the face of rising criticism (and more crashes) Toyota announced it had found the problem: Stuck floor mats were still to blame, but the gas pedal design aggravated the problem, by inadvertently catching the floor mat.

Floor mats + gas pedal. End of story.

Except, it wasn’t.

With reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles continuing, the automaker was forced to consider other possible problems. In January, they found THE PROBLEM. Toyota announced that the gas pedals were poorly designed, so that under certain circumstances, a spring within the peddle assembly could get caught on another pedal part. And, by the way, Toyota pointed out — they didn’t manufacture the peddles. They just purchased them from a third party.

Floor mats + gas pedal. End of story.

Except, it isn’t.

Perceptual Error?

Toyota is now having shims inserted that are supposed to take care of the problem. The solution makes sense — if the only problem is a sticky gas pedal.

On the blog, The Truth About Cars, automotive writer Paul Niedermeyer has a detailed analysis of the gas pedal problems, showing how the spring could get stuck. As he walks us through the process, it makes complete sense.  But he adds a caveat:

This problem would not be the cause of “unintended acceleration” to the extent that the pedal would only stay open as much as it was before being released, although it could well be experienced as such. If the car was being accelerated briskly as on an on-ramp or hill, and the pedal stuck in that degree of openness, the car could well feel like it was accelerating on its own after the target speed was attained and the foot pressure reduced.

Some may read the post and form an erroneous conclusion: Drivers are making a perceptual error: the car isn’t really accelerating. It just seems that way.

That may, indeed, happen in some cases, but Roger Witherspoon, a journalists with umpteen years of experience with such cases thinks that scenario is just plain wrong.

It’s the Electronics, Stupid!

In his invaluable blog, Shifting Gears, Witherspoon writes about the problem with attributing the accidents to sticky pedals:

The company’s explanation is technologically implausible. People have died because the cars inexplicably accelerate. If the pedal stays put, or rises only part way, there is a change in the rate of deceleration – but the car does not speed up. Toyota, therefore, seems determined to pursue a solution to the wrong problem, substituting a target that may be a nuisance for a different target that may be demonstrably fatal. [My emphasis]

Witherspoon writes about his own experience driving a runaway car. I can’t do the story justice here — you really should read the original on his blog.

But the take-away message is that the car Witherspoon was driving was made by American Motors in the 1970s. The company immediately found (and fixed) the cause of the problem: a glitch in the then-new technology of electronic cruise control.

Toyota still insists this is a purely mechanical problem, not, they insist, an electronic one — despite evidence that the LA Times, Witherspoon and others point to showing that an electronic failure is the most likely source of the sudden acceleration.

Toyota Responds

Speaking on CNBC news just after announcing the most recent recall, James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A, said the electronics aren’t an issue. Lentz is sure of that because, he said, there are “fail-safe mechanisms within the electronics.”

And how confident is Lentz that Toyota has solved the problem this time?

“We are very confident,” he said, “that the fix in place is going to stop what’s going on.”

End of story.

Except, it won’t be.


Active Conversation
4 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 11 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Whether or not it’s the electronics, Witherspoon’s comment is wrong when he says “If the pedal stays put, or rises only part way, there is a change in the rate of deceleration – but the car does not speed up.”

    A car doesn’t go from 0-60 mph instantaneously. You can put the pedal halfway to the floor and hold it there and speed up for quite a while before you’ll have to push it in any further. If the pedal rises, it should decelerate, but if it stays in place, that’s just not true.

  2. collapse expand

    Your argument makes a lot of sense, until you consider gravity. A car at rest in neutral facing down an incline will accelerate. Likewise, a car with the engine engaged at a constant speed will accelerate down an incline. Add in mcmegs point that it takes time for the engine to build momentum in the car and you have 2 very good explanations for a stuck pedal causing acceleration. As an engineer, the idea of my work ever causing an injury or fatality has literally kept me up nights. I doubt the folks at Toyota are so different, even if you’d like to think of them as a big bad corporation.

    • collapse expand

      I don’t think I’ll argue against gravity or the potential for acceleration as mcmegs described above. For the record: I also believe the world to be round.

      But…(you knew that was coming, right?) there are many models to explain a single incident. While driving on a level surface, if you take your foot off the gas pedal the vehicle COULD continue accelerating if a straight-line tail wind blowing at 80 MPH suddenly hit. Of if a tailgating vehicle behind going 90 MPH ran into the back of your car.

      Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

      Toyota’s history of denial followed by incremental fixes, and their failure to install “brake override” systems 10 years after other manufacturers did, suggest that a problem with the electronics is the most likely cause.

      Despite the best intentions of individuals – engineers and others – the record shows that some corporations do allow products they know to be unsafe onto the market. The most common example is the tobacco industry, which knew cigarettes caused cancer and hid the evidence.

      This doesn’t damn all companies. But it does suggest that the public — and certainly journalists — maintain a healthy amount of skepticism about claims made by corporations, politicians — and, of course, by journalists.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Im going to go for an electronics problem as well. Especially if the accelerator is an electronic “fly-by-wire” type design. There needn’t be an fatalities if the driver reacts quickly by putting the transmission in neutral and hitting the breaks.

    • collapse expand

      That’s another thing that’s irritated me. Weren’t those tests conducted in ideal conditions, ie brakes in great working order, no snow, etc.? Wouldn’t it be the case that if one brake pad was screwed up that there’d be some pretty damn dangerous pulling to one side?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    While not claiming to be educated in automotive or avionic electronics; I do have quite a bit of experience with microprocessor based process controls. I learned early in my career that when a system operator tells you that a particular anomaly is occurring in the process, you never immediately discount the possibility of a programming error, or electronic device issue.
    I was actually shocked to read that Toyota is discounting this based on “fail-safe mechanisms within the electronics.” I would be equally shocked if they are not seriously looking into processor manufacturing, software, or firmware issues.
    I have seen several instances where a control system works flawlessly, but then has an issue under certain perfect storm conditions that are unforeseen or not considered during testing.
    I am skeptical of the mechanical resolution, due to the amount of time it has taken to issue this response after the original resolution being the floor mats. At the same time I hope I am wrong and no one has to die for the problem to be discovered and corrected.

    • collapse expand

      Bet you anything that you are so, so not wrong. Car repair is so software-based nowadays that more and more of it is being performed by offsite guys — a friend of mine does it for Mercedes, working remotely in New Hampshire fixing cars in Wisconsin or whatnot. Skynet is here, folks.

      I also don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the acceleration problem as something in which “gravity” is the big problem until you’ve read full “system operator” testimonials. Users (drivers, in this case) do stupid things and can panic, yes, but people know when they’re, you know, speeding up and shit.

      This is sure beginning to sound more and more like a software bug, which is, really and truly, an honest mistake. I wouldn’t blame the engineers, but “what did they know and when did they know it” could make this the worst dicking of consumers since the Pinto.

      In full disclosure, yes, there’s schadenfreude on my part – I drive a Hyundai Sonata, which made financial sense (grr) when I bought it. Consolation being that I was recently able to buy a bumpersticker that reads “Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For.”

      Schadenfreude (and adeherence to topic) aside, though, Toyota’s cars are fucking boring. Meantime, the new Taurus is friggin awesome, also.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Anyone remember the Ford/Firestone incident. At that time it became public knowledge, some of us knew way before hand, that the large manufacturing companies have a formula for when to fix a problem. Its not immediately after the problem is first reported. It takes a certain amount of incidents, along with injuries and fatalities before their formula says fix it now or lose money. Toyota is no different than Ford, Firestone or any other manufacturer in this case. The right thing to do is admit the error and fix it right away, but that will lose tons of money vs. ignoring it till the ignorance loses them money. In the cases you have mentioned and this one it appears they are still doing the latter.

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