Monday, August 16, 2010

Toyota's Acceleration Problem: No Smoking Gun Yet

According to a preliminary report by U. S. regulators looking into the accusations that some Toyotas have an electronic flaw that makes them accelerate unexpectedly, no sign of such a problem was found in any of the 58 cars involved in incidents that the regulators investigated so far. The report reinforces claims by Toyota that there are no electronic flaws to be found, and that drivers who say their cars took off by themselves probably hit the accelerator by mistake.

I blogged on this issue back on March 6 and April 12 of this year, first to criticize Toyota for mishandling public relations surrounding the incident, and then to back off on my own opinion that they were to blame. Toyota has since paid a $16 million fine for not notifying the government fast enough about the problem, whatever its cause was. And they have supplied the Feds with ten of the data readers that were so scarce at the beginning of the investigation—only one operable unit was in the entire United States to begin with. So at least when it comes to public and government relations, Toyota seems to be learning some lessons there.

The question remains open whether some other technical problem could have been causing the accidents that are the focus of many lawsuits. Advocates for these suits, as you might expect, claim that the government investigation looked in the wrong places. The investigation is not over by any means. Experts at NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are still looking into the possibility that electromagnetic interference, for example, could have caused the problem. That is a subject I know a little bit about and have some experience with.

One day I was doing an experiment in my lab that involved a high-voltage discharge that made a pretty powerful electromagnetic impulse. All of a sudden, right after I fired the discharge the laptop I was using for taking data locked up. I discovered that the impulse was traveling down some wires to the laptop and giving it temporary paralysis. I improved the shielding on my setup and eventually got things to work again.

Unless there are unusual circumstances, electromagnetic interference with computers usually acts like a blunt instrument, causing low-level communications errors that most systems will react to by just freezing up. I suppose the automotive equivalent of freezing up would be for the whole car to quit running, not for the accelerator to stick on maximum. From my relatively uninformed viewpoint, I would say that electromagnetic interference is unlikely to do the particular thing that the plaintiffs claim it did.

I am no psychologist, but I expect that the surprise and fear engendered by a sudden acceleration of a car you’re driving might cause you to freeze up yourself, rendering you both incapable of figuring out what you’re doing with the pedals, and of realizing that in fact you have jammed your foot on the accelerator and not the brake. So I don’t accuse all the plaintiffs in these suits of bad faith. I expect that most of them sincerely believe they did nothing wrong and the car just took off by itself. But without having the floorboard equipped with a camera and recording system to show what really happened (will that be an option on next year’s Toyotas?), or unless the onboard “black box” was subsequently activated by a high-velocity accident, there is really no way to tell what happened in the majority of the alleged cases. So those cases will be matters for judges and juries to sort out, not scientific investigators.

As I pointed out in my second post last spring, history shows a record of periodic flurries of sudden-acceleration lawsuits that crop up from time to time, sort of like seven-year locusts. There is a constant supply of accidents in which drivers (generally older ones) hit accelerators by mistake, and all that is needed to generate a spate of lawsuits against a given auto maker is one or two well-publicized cases in which the plaintiffs accuse the manufacturer of a safety defect that caused the sudden-acceleration crash. The plaintiffs are obviously not unbiased observers in these cases, since if they prove to a jury that it was the carmaker’s incompetence, and not the driver’s stupidity or carelessness, that was at fault, they stand to make big bucks, as do their (generally) contingency-fee lawyers. (Though this is not the place to debate the ethics of contingency-fee lawyering, I have negative opinions about it.) With the exception of the floor-mat problem, which was a real flaw and thoroughly, though tardily, recalled and fixed by Toyota, it is beginning to look like this was just the latest of a long series of unintended-acceleration flaps that have popped up on and off for many years.

The only way this kind of thing can be put to rest altogether is for the car manufacturers to perfect one-hundred-percent autopiloted cars. I for one look forward to the day of the electronic chauffeur. I can take driving or leave it, and the idea of treating my private car like a train ride—reading, making phone calls, and doing whatever else is convenient to do in an automobile when you are not distracted by the tedious task of driving the thing—is quite appealing to me. And if the car is fixed so the driver can’t accelerate, brake, steer or do anything other than tell the thing where to go, then you automatically eliminate driver error. Of course, anything that goes wrong after that is indubitably the automaker’s fault, which may be one reason this vision will be long in coming. I for one look forward to it. But then, I’m not a lawyer.

Sources: Nick Bunkley’s article on the National Highway Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report to Congress is at

P. S. I have started another blog entitled “Electronic Memories” at which I will post from time to time memoirs of a youth and adolescence spent among solder, batteries, and oscilloscopes. For those who may be interested in such things, it can be found at

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