Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Toyota case, revisited

Back on February 1st I posted an article titled 'Is Toyota Lying To Its Customers?' In it, I cited another source which claimed that Toyota's electronic systems - not just the floor mats in its vehicles - might be to blame for a series of dangerous, sometimes fatal accidents. Most comments in reply to that article tended to side with Toyota, rather than the allegations of electronic system defects.

Now we read that there is, indeed, evidence that Toyota's systems may be defective. CNN reports:

Witnesses at the first of three Congressional hearings on Toyota's recall problems testified that they believe they have found a possible additional cause of unintended acceleration in Toyotas, one that has to do with the vehicles' electronic throttle control systems.

David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, said he had uncovered a potential for a short circuit that could undermine the car's built in safety checks.

"What this does is this opens the opportunity to have other problems occur without detection," he said.

Toyota Motor U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz said that an engineering consulting firm hired by Toyota, Exponent, Inc., was able to replicate the situation created by Gilbert both in a Toyota vehicle and in a competing vehicle.

Gilbert spoke shortly after Rhonda Smith, a Lexus owner who experienced an episode of high-speed unintended acceleration in her ES350. The car revved out of control shortly after she entered the highway, she said, and neither the brakes nor shifting the car into neutral or reverse brought it to a stop.

"After six miles, God intervened," she said, and she was able to bring the car to a stop.

Representatives of both Toyota and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told her that what she had experienced could not have happened, she said.

"I was labeled a destructive lying idiot," she said.

The system used on Toyota relies on two separate sensors connected to the gas pedal and another pair connected to the throttle valve itself.

In order for the system to work each sensor in a pair has to match. If they don't match in the proper way, an on-board computer immediately senses that as a problem and the engine power is immediately reduced to idle or, in some situations, it's shut off altogether.

Gilbert said that he overrode that safety feature, which would have allowed faulty pedal signals to be sent to the engine with no problem being detected by the car's on-board computer.

Toyota has raised questions about Gilbert's tests and its application to real-world circumstances. The carmaker has invited Gilbert to demonstrate the problem for them after Toyota's own engineers were unable to replicate the situation in an earlier test.

The problem could, theoretically, be caused by a manufacturing defect in the sensors, Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he was unable to create a similar problem in cars by other manufacturers, including General Motors and Honda. Those cars use more stringent error-checking systems in their cars, Gilbert said.

. . .

Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Transportation Department, told the subcommittee that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is going to investigate the possibility that electronic defects are to blame for some of Toyota's acceleration problems.

"Under our watch we are going get into the weeds and have a complete review on the electronics," he said.

LaHood, who was named Transportation Secretary in January, defended his agency's handing of Toyota's safety problems and said the government will work to ensure the safety of American drivers.

A NHTSA administrator went to Toyota headquarters in Japan earlier this year to press the automaker's management to instigate the recalls, LaHood said. "I think they were a little safety def and we wanted to create some listening devices for them."

In a letter addressed to Lentz Monday, Oversight and Investigations subcommittee chairman Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) wrote that his committee's preliminary review of 75,000 pages of Toyota's internal company documents raises significant concerns. In particular, Toyota boasted of saving $100 million by dodging a more extensive recall of the Toyota Camry and Lexus.

In response, Lentz said in prepared testimony that, "Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith and efforts. The problem has been compounded by poor communication both within our company and with regulators and consumers."

He goes on to say that Toyota's investigation of customer complaints focused on technical issues, failing to efficiently analyze and respond to information about sticking accelerator pedals.

"We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize for them and we have learned from them," Lentz says in the remarks. "We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customer and our regulators."

. . .

Several witnesses at Tuesday morning's hearing are expected to testify about their suspicions that a software issue in the car's computerized throttle system may be to blame in some cases of unintended acceleration.

Documents reviewed by the Energy Committee call into question the thoroughness of Toyota's investigations.

During opening statements at the start of Tuesday's hearings, several Representatives also questioned NHTSA's ability to deal with possible software issues, noting that agency lacks technical expertise in computerized automotive systems.

There's more at the link.

My original question stands. Has Toyota been lying to its customers, either by deliberate act, or by omission - failing to convey to them safety news that they had a right to know?

I'll be watching further developments in this case with great interest.



reflectoscope said...

Throttle by wire enables some clever tricks for the powertrain engineers, but it obviously is going through some growing pains.

Perhaps the manual transmission will experience a renaissance, this time as a safety device!


Anonymous said...

Give me a good old-fashioned mechanical throttle cable any day! I am an electronics technician, and I can say that the mechanical cable is far more reliable, and is less costly to replace, than the modern electronics garbage.

I guess the Toyota engineers missed the part of their classes dealing with "fail safe" design concepts (not that there really is anything that is "fail safe")!


PeterT said...

I have yet to see any evidence that eliminates the fact that the most likely cause of the problem is a panicked driver. There is not a car made for normal consumers that will not stop if the brakes are stomped on with both feet. I don't care what the throttle says, the brakes will overcome the power of the engine. Come on people, it's Audi and Alar all over again. Why has Gilbert's 'work' not been able to be duplicated?
I'm no great fan of Toyota, I've never owned a new one, I did own an old Hilux Pickup in the mid eighties for a while.. but that's it. This is witch-hunting and blame shifting at it's worst, and skunk lawyer's looking for a big payday....

joe said...

Normally, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. A POTENTIAL problem exists if the operator controls are not mechanically linked to the vehicle systems. On traditional automobiles, the gas pedal has a cable hooked to the throttle body and the brake pedal directly actuates the hydraulic system. In a drive-by-wire system, the computer reads the user inputs from the pedals and then operates the brakes/throttle/gears/etc. Some aircraft have been doing this for years, if not decades(our host can certainly speak to this point much more accurately than I).

If this setup is indeed what's installed in Toyota, then this may not in fact be *only* a witch-hunt, though there's likely a bit of that involved regardless. I, also, work some with electronics and this sort of intermittent fault is extremely difficult to replicate and isolate. If it's a software bug, it may only occur under a specific combination of throttle position, speed, engine RPM, etc. and even then only sometimes. The question now is how Toyota handles the problem. They're not known for their customer service. Time will tell.

tpmoney said...

I still don't quite get how you can have a situation where the car is accelerating without any driver control. Per this article, the driver states that neither shifting to neutral, or reverse, or hitting the brakes did anything to stop her car, and I (and apparently NHTSA) don't believe her.

I can believe that there was a malfunction which cause the car to accelerate. I can even believe that another malfunction occurred to prevent either the brakes from working or a shift from occurring, assuming the entire car is drive by wire for everything. What I can't believe is that not only did the accelerator malfunction, but the brakes and the shifter did as well. And we can presume as well that her e-brake failed and that she was unable to turn the car off as well (keyless start I presume).

If it was the case that all of these systems in her car were computer controlled and she had no mechanical control at all over her vehicle, then to be honest, the problem isn't a manufacturing defect, its that such a vehicle is even allowed on the roads at all.

I don't dispute that there was a big problem here that needed to be addressed. What I do think is that this is being blown way out of proportion and is a witch hunt.

full disclosure: I own one of the only toyota's to not be recalled, and I also prefer to drive a stick shift. I also own a chevy that I would trade for a toyota in a heartbeat, even after these recalls.

Anonymous said...

FWIW I had an accelerator problem in my 2000 Isuzu Rodeo. As I entered the highway the engine suddenly would not go over 1200rpm - that's about 35mph. HOWSOMEVER - the brakes still worked fine. When I got it back to my mechanic, he told me that something in the electronic throttle circuit had failed.
By the way, the Isuzu Rodeo and the Honda Passport are identical vehicles except for the badging; both being put together in LA..