By on February 24, 2010


It’s been nearly a year since the automotive industry has been treated to a must-watch DC hearing. The last time around, when the executives of America’s automakers went begging to congress for multi-billion dollar bailouts, hearings were heated and combative. Though liberally sprinkled with irony and comedic ignorance, those hearings were, at their heart, a traditional partisan stand-off. But bailouts are also a relatively cut-and-dried topic: you either support them for solid political reasons, or you oppose them for equally solid, equally political reasons. But faced with a national bogeyman of legendary mystery, the lurking terror of unintended acceleration, congress’s task was more complicated than the bailout’s do-we-or-don’t-we dilemma. Tasked with uncovering the truth behind a complex technical problem, is it any wonder that yesterday’s hearings before the House Energy Committee took a turn for the strangely hilarious? [Editor's note: full prepared statements from all witnesses are available in PDF format here full video of all of yesterday's testimony is available at CSPAN]

Watching congress tackle the problem of out-of-control cars is something like watching a panel of tenured literature professors struggle to open a jar of pickles: the problem isn’t necessarily that the individuals involved aren’t intelligent, it’s that they are stunningly ill-prepared for the task. Not only are most representatives not trained to understand the complexities of automotive systems, they’re also constitutionally incapable of contemplating the possibility that as one of America’s best-selling brands, Toyota likely sells a lot of cars to stupid people. The possibility that even a small percentage of the unintended acceleration cases might have been caused by (or at least were not averted because of) human error was, at best, only obliquely hinted at for the simple reason that congressional hearings always require a satisfyingly sinister scapegoat. Just as nobody blamed individuals for voluntarily taking on risky mortgages during the subprime lending crisis hearings, there was little doubt that anybody other than Toyota and the NHTSA would be blamed for the deaths resulting from sudden unintended acceleration. Therefore, congress’s task was to understand the problem in such a way that consciously kept attention on these two, admittedly imperfect organizations.

Luckily for congress, there is no shortage of “expert witnesses” willing to place all of the blame on Toyota and the NHTSA, and the first act of yesterday’s hearings opened with testimony from a select few of these witnesses. These witnesses, Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University, and unintended acceleration victim Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn, were called to fill in the obvious gaps in the committees knowledge of the complexities of sudden unintended acceleration. Unfortunately, these three witnesses probably confused the committee as much as they did enlighten it.

Ms Smith was the first witness to place her statement on the record, and she delivered her testimony with the kind of folksy gravitas that makes congress weak in the knees. Better yet, her story was so outrageously inexplicable that congress was faced with only two options: take her story at face value or suggest (as Toyota has) that Ms Smith’s story can not be fully explained without relying on a belief in divine (or diabolical) intervention. Ms Smith and her husband certainly didn’t deny the role of the supernatural in her experience, but because the hearing’s pre-determined villains had implied that the lack of rational explanations for her incident placed a certain amount of responsibility on her shoulders, repetition of such suggestions would not have served the hearing’s purpose.

In providing an inexplicable example of unintended acceleration, the Smith’s testimony set the tone for the rest of the hearing. No other witnesses were called to provide supporting evidence of the apparent simultaneous brake, engine and transmission control failure that Ms Smith claims to have experienced. As a result, the hearings proceeded with congress’s limited engineering knowledge enhanced only by a single scenario in which an untrained witness described a vehicle that was clearly possessed by some mysterious, malignant force. Which, as it turns out, suited the final two expert witnesses just fine.

Sean Kane, an analyst for the independent Safety Research & Strategies, was not able to offer any better explanation for Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems than the Smiths. First blaming Toyota for failing to recognize the problem of pedal entrapment, Kane then went on to claim that pedal entrapment couldn’t explain most UA complaints on the record. This strategy added to Toyota’s halo of shame while consciously failing to present any rational explanation for what might be causing the incidents beyond the lurking, sci-fi menace of electronics gone mysteriously wrong. Kane’s expert backup, Dr. Gilbert, was no more helpful, proving only that he was able to cause UA in Toyotas without triggering an error code.

After one first-hand account and two expert witnesses, the committee actually knew less than they had before the hearing began. Worse still, the evidence they did hear was orchestrated in such a way as to leverage this ignorance: the Smiths proved only that no driver should be held accountable for UA in a Toyota because shifting into neutral and even reverse at 100 mph (let alone using brakes and emergency brakes) hadn’t stopped the car (until it did), while Kane proved that mysterious Toyota-exclusive electronic problems are widespread, and Gilbert proved that they are untraceable.

Needless to say, this was no coincidence. As these three witnesses fielded confused questions from the committee some key facts arose about their testimony: first, Kane’s report was sponsored by five law firms, each of which have suits pending against Toyota and second, that Kane had paid Gilbert for his analysis. If these facts (and Kane and Gilbert’s huffy reactions to them) altered the opinion of any committee members, it didn’t matter. These were the only witnesses called, and when they were finished, the time had come for congress to grill the bad guys: Toyota’s Jim Lentz and and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

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50 Comments on “The Toyota Testimony, Day One: A Comedy In Three Parts: Act One: The Expert Evidence...”


  • avatar
    autoarcheologist

    I watched Ms. Smith’s testimony, and had that sickly deja vu feeling of the Audi debacle all over again.

    I haven’t been an engineer for the auto industry for over 10 years, but in that time have all systems gone completely electronic?

    Could she shift into Reverse at speed? Is there not a lockout on her Lexus?

    Are brakes completely electronic now too?

    I can buy into a throttle issue or electronic glitch in the ECU, but unless all systems are now completely fly by wire, I find the odds of all systems failing low. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but boy does it sound a bit like user error to me.

    Anybody know what model and year Lexus she drove? It’s a 2006 or older.

    • 0 avatar
      Juniper

      A very strange thing indeed.
      About brakes, I assume they are vacuum assist. If the throttle valve is at WOT how much vacuum is generated, and will the eventual loss of vacuum make the brakes difficult if not ineffective?
      In my opinion the lack of smooth presentation skills gave these witnesses some credibility. I’m not willing to just scream driver error and walk away. Or call anyone an idiot.

    • 0 avatar
      Audi-Inni

      I suspect, as the author suggests, that Congress could have gotten more than one witness to corroborate or duplicate her story. Unfortunately, all the other victims are apparently dead.

    • 0 avatar
      FTGDWolverineEdition'10

      There is almost no freaking way you can shift an auto into reverse (at least the modern ones) at speed. The electronic nannies just don’t allow that. I am an auto engineer who deals with this crap everyday.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Those first 3 witnesses provided a real farse, with the Smiths’ testimony being the most incredible. The car was a 2007 Lexus ES with under 3000 miles (the 2007 model was introduced in spring 2006). Brakes are most definitely NOT by wire, and I don’t believe the shifter is either (can someone confirm the latter?). I understand that there is an electronic lockout that prevents actual shifting into reverse at speed, even if the shifter is moved to the “R” or even the “P” position.

    Mrs. Smith was on Interstate 40, which unless crowded with traffic, would have allowed 100 mph speeds without any real risk of a crash. The brakes and tranny wouldn’t work, she alleged, yet she somehow managed to call her husband. Then she prayed and the car finally stopped alongside the median. How did she ultimately stop? Did God intervene?

    Also Gilbert came off looking out of his element, with his paymaster Kane having to bail him out. And then as you point out, there’s charlatan/shark Kane, who never met sudden acceleration that was caused by driver error. So convenient for the trial lawyers who provide the main source of income for his “expert” company, which has only one engineer on its staff.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Did God intervene?

      Do you want to be the person whose job it is to refute that statement? Do you really want to go on the air, in front of a “Jesus and Apple Pie” congress and deny the power of prayer of a virtuous Christian woman in her moment of need?

    • 0 avatar

      Who knows if GOD intervened? All I know is if I exhausted all of my options the way she said she did, I’d be doing a lot of praying as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Who says that God didn’t answer her prayers. As a rabbi once taught me, God answers all prayers. Usually the answer is no.

    • 0 avatar
      210delray

      Did God intervene?

      Do you want to be the person whose job it is to refute that statement?

      Good point; I’d keep my lip zipped. Same as I did when my sister-in-law recently claimed she had seen a UFO.

    • 0 avatar
      mikedt

      Given the car, I’m guessing she dialed hands free using voice recognition and bluetooth.

      As for the brakes, I can see her using them too much, but not hard enough in the very beginning, resulting in brake fade to the point where they ended up being worthless.

      But in a modern high end car even brakes aren’t fully mechanical. Between ABS, traction control, stability management and other active safety features a computer could decide it didn’t want to brake at the moment.

    • 0 avatar
      Facebook User

      I don’t think it’s a question whether God intervened… but thank the good Lord that He did pay attention at driving school, apparently unlike Ms. Smith.

    • 0 avatar
      thebanana

      According to her, it was indeed god who stopped the car. While she was on the phone.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    The term is “pilot error”.

    These clowns shouldn’t have driver’s licenses.

    It’s the Audi experience all over again.

    All the remains is for CBS to rig some fake demos to make the circle complete.

    • 0 avatar

      Mrs. Smith did not come across as a clown to me. I don’t know what I would do if I were in her situation. After all, she says she tried neutral and reverse and nothing worked. Then when she pulled over the car continued to rev, maybe it finally did go into neutral at that point. It sounds very similar to the man with the Avalon who drove to the Toyota dealer and showed them the car revving in neutral.

      The most interesting piece of her testimony is that she says the cruise control light came on just before the episode happened.

    • 0 avatar
      Facebook User

      “After all, she says she tried neutral and reverse and nothing worked.”

      People can and do say a lot of things when testifying before Congress, with cameras present.

    • 0 avatar
      leeharvey418

      @carguy-

      Can you please repeat the story of the guy in the Avalon for those who may have missed it the first time?

    • 0 avatar

      Gilbert and his Naderite sponsor Kane already put on a rigged dog & pony show for ABC News. It was all very impressive, what with Gilbert being a PhD professor and all (but if you look at his CV and the program where he teaches, he’s a glorified auto shop teacher), but Gilbert never explains how the short circuits he’s causing actually replicate real world issues with corrosion, moisture etc. It’d be one thing if he put a pedal unit in a salt spray cabinet and then was able to find similar electrical faults, but he’s hot wiring the car’s accelerator pedal position sensors and then asking us to believe that’s what’s happening in real life.

      Also, if you read his testimony, shorting the two APP sensors could affect throttle response, but the only way he could get the car to go to WOT in an uncontrolled manner was to introduce a second short circuit on top on the first. And not just any short circuit, he connects the 5V power rail from a sensor directly to where he’s already shorted the two APP sensors.

      I dunno, but I’m skeptical that such a cascade of electrical faults is going to happen even in severe service.

    • 0 avatar

      @leeharvey418:

      http://www.leftlanenews.com/toyota-avalon-displays-unintended-acceleration-without-floor-mat.html

      This is the story of a man and his 2007 Avalon.

      @Rob Finfrock:

      I’m just taking her story at face value. Maybe they should have asked her what putting her car in neutral is supposed to do? That would have been interesting.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      She claimed to have tried neutral. She probably didn’t put it into neutral until right before she stopped.

  • avatar
    KayakerNC

    DaCoyote said:
    “All the remains is for CBS to rig some fake demos to make the circle complete.”

    Not to worry. ABC News is stepping in to fill that void.

    http://www.autoblog.com/2010/02/24/autoline-on-autoblog-with-john-mcelroy/

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Watching bits of this made me vaguely ill, because it reminded me of all the times I had to sit across from someone who not only was not in possession of the the facts, but didn’t have a grasp of theory, either, and have them tell me why I was an idiot for not being able to give them one-hundred percent assurance that something would or would not happen.

    Lentz can’t say, for certain, that they’ve found all the possible causes and that the problem can’t occur. He’s also right to say that no manufacturer could say that. You’d need several blackboards and a long and boring discussion to explain that.

    But congress doesn’t want to hear about complexity and probability and failure modes and so forth. Mathematical proofs don’t make for good political theatre.

    Personally, I’ve taken to lying when people ask for one hundred percent assurance of anything, unless the person asking the question isn’t giving me enough resources (money, time, facilities, staff) to feel reasonably confident about lying. Toyota can’t do that in this situation, unfortunately.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      If they can’t say it confidently, how can they be so sure there is a problem with the ECM, code or electrical components. I agree, you can’t be 100% sure about this issue, but they apparently are 100% sure that it isn’t a few things.

  • avatar

    I was a little grossed out at all the camera shutter clicks when Mrs. Smith starts choking up.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    Excellent summation, Mr. N.

    That hearing was farcical.

    That woman essentially has a consumer complaint against Toyota. She provided nothing to support her position. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s a cruel world, but if you’ve got nothing to support your position, then you’ve got nothing to support your position, and it has to be discounted.

    And to put trial lawyers front and center into this process? AND their paid consultants?

    To bring this farce into our Congress… The People’s House… is simply a disgrace. We should all be ashamed.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      crash sled,
      Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Say this exact scenario happened to you or maybe a relative that doesn’t have a good deal of automotive knowledge. What evidence would you expect to have after this happened? Not like you are going to have video recorder of this? The black box, which only Toyota could read, is probably overwritten. I am not saying I do or don’t believe her, but what evidence would you think she would have if the scenario she described was true?

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      She offered no evidence to support her claims, that’s the whole point.

      If she’d taken that vehicle and executed some diagnostics on it, or had somebody else drive it and try to reproduce what occurred, or anything at all in the way of something tangible, then we’d have something to support her claims.

      She could have used one of those cheap scan tools and recorded some data, or with perhaps even some video. If that vehicle was truly sour, and not just temporarily possessed by the Devil, the failure might have been reproduced.

      She provided nothing.

      Her testimony, given its lack of support, might even imply that she DID do some form of diagnostic or technical review, and came up empty, but isn’t sharing that because it would detract from her tear-filled horror story. Note that the handling of this vehicle wasn’t much discussed after this incident, or at least she didn’t discuss it.

      Sorry, lady, I ain’t buying it. Cars don’t turn the ignition over on their own, while hanging off the wrecker’s hook. She almost had even ME, until she blurted that out.

  • avatar
    nova73

    The mere fact that Mrs. Smith believes the gremlins revved her motor, disconnected her brakes and shifter and then returned control of all three systems to the driver ought to be grounds for revoking her driver’s license. I wonder how much she is paying for insurance these days? Would any insurer want to take on the risk?

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    What I found interesting about the Smith testimony was the questions Gilbert was asked immediately after that. Senator (either Stupak or Waxman) asks why Mrs. Smith was not able to change the car into Neutral, Gilbert answers that she should have been able to, the Senator corrects himself that he meant ‘reverse’ quickly realizing his error.

    Obviously, if the expert witness testifies saying that Mrs. Smith should have been able get into neutral then there is a big hole and large questionability of her testimony. The entire panel only talks about not being able to get into reverse for the reminder of Gilbert/Smith’s testimony.

    However, once Lentz appears, the fact that Smith’s car wasn’t able to get into Neutral is being handled as a matter of fact, when Gilbert testified to the contrary.

    • 0 avatar
      leeharvey418

      I’m sorry- I get the impression from your comment that you expect reason and logic out of our Congress. You must not be familiar with American politics…

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      @leeharvey418

      I’d actually sat they were acting with some degree of reason and logic, but rather in the interest of upholding the political theatrics that Edward Niedermeyer points to in his article. Clearly, Mrs. Smith “folksy” testimony was central to all of this, even when evidence thats clearly contradicts it is unintentionally presented.

    • 0 avatar
      leeharvey418

      Must be my tongue wasn’t as obviously wedged into my cheek as I had hoped.

      Of course our Representatives wouldn’t be in office if they weren’t good at some aspect of rhetoric and analysis… that doesn’t change the fact that none of them chose to further pursue the reverse versus neutral question, instead focusing on the lockout feature that prevents the operator from selecting reverse while at speed.

  • avatar
    bmoredlj

    With all due respect to Mrs. Smith, her presence at the hearing only further confused a committee that had no more knowledge of automotive engineering than she did. She succeeded in putting a human face on the SUA debacle, but the details of her experience still allude me, even after the panel examined her testimony.

    Many of the congressmen couldn’t even pronounce the name of the company correctly, for crying out loud. Dry as it might have been, real, unbiased automotive engineers (if they exist) should have offered expert testimony first, in the form of a crash course (NPI) in exactly what was going on mechanically with the recalled Toyotas.

    That a frightened and traumatized individual who knows nothing about how her car works provided the first testimony struck me as a purely emotional choice that only did a disservice to the committee’s understanding of the problem at hand.

    And I don’t care, you simply DO NOT call “expert witnesses” if they’re being compensated by law firms currently suing Toyota, no matter how meagerly. These experts could barely contain their bias – whether motivated by money or not – and exploited the committee’s ignorance of the concrete facts to elaborate on personal theories that required unbiased proof to be properly entered as testimony.

    Finally, I’m glad Sec. LaHood is so gung-ho about making cars “100% safe” (kind of akin to winning a war against a tactic), but didn’t his mother ever teach him about his “indoor voice”?

    • 0 avatar
      leeharvey418

      “Many of the congressmen couldn’t even pronounce the name of the company correctly, for crying out loud. Dry as it might have been, real, unbiased automotive engineers (if they exist) should have offered expert testimony first, in the form of a crash course (NPI) in exactly what was going on mechanically with the recalled Toyotas. ”

      Therein lies the big problem here- assuming for the sake of argument that there is indeed a software/electrical root cause, it’s something that is so obscure or unlikely to happen that the best FME analysts within Toyota (and the rest of the industry, presumably) are missing it. Giving the lawyers a cursory understanding of Automotive Engineering isn’t going to help when some of the best minds in the field are already looking at the problem and all missing the issue, again assuming that there even is one.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    And this, Mr. Toyoda, is why manufacturers of sophisticated hardware with multiple electronic controls that is sold to an unsophisticated and ill-trained public would be well served to include a durable and readily readable EDR in said hardware. To determine what was actually happening in that hardware when the unsophiisticated user gets into trouble.

  • avatar
    mike_i_n_mich

    Modern transmission controls electronically lock out “abusive engagements”, including shifting into reverse at 100 MPH.

    They do not intentionally lock out neutral.

    Mrs. Smith’s adventure would have had a much shorter duration if she had put it in neutral earlier. The guy in San Diego who drove a Lexus would still be alive. I can’t believe these people have the time and state of mind to get on a cell phone and ask for help, but can’t figure out that putting a car in neutral disconnects the engine from the vehicle.

    I like Dr.Gilbert; the fact that he is a glorified shop teacher gives him credibility to me. I think people are throwing cheap shots at him above. Getting $1800 upfront and $150 per hour is not enough to buy him off. I think he is just trying to do the right thing.

    The fact is Dr.Gilbert has brought to my attention, and others, the fact that Toyota has a different control design than is used by most everyone else to my knowledge. Like everyone else they have at least two pedal position sensors. But theirs both read high voltage at high pedal depression making them susceptable to a a variety of faults unnecessarily. Everyone else I know of (GM, Ford, all Bosch equipped vehicles) have the two sensors go in opposite directions; one reading high volts when depressed the other reading low volts. Call this the opposing slope design. This design makes it easier to detect when the sensors disagree.

    Further, while talk of electromagnetic radiation are specualtive, it is much easier to imagine you could get two sensors to simultaneously read high voltage and fool the Toyota design, then to get one sensor to read high while the other reads low to fool the opposing slope design. I think you could even convince one of the low IQ juries the trial lawyers seek out.

    I haven’t seen enough detail about Dr.Gilbert’s experiment to weigh in on the possibility of this happening in the real world. But it is logical that it would be easier to defeat the Toyota design than the opposing slope design. And this was indeed Dr.Gilbert’s hypothesis that he followed through on with his experiments.

    The other, more robust design, was in production for several years before the Toyota design. So why would they use a obviously inferior design? Patent royalties?

    Toyota/Lexus also has a problem with their keyless start and the 3 seconds required to turn off the engine. Many people who would know to turn off the key during sudden acceleration are defeated by this design in an emergency, panic situation.

    Toyota also appears to have a unique problem with sticking pedal mechanisms.

    Toyota also appears to have engaged in a massive coverup, as illustrated by how quickly the sticking pedal fix came out after the sham floormat recall. They obviously have been working on the sticking pedal issue for some time.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      “Toyota/Lexus also has a problem with their keyless start and the 3 seconds required to turn off the engine.”

      The PC industry had the same issue when computers started coming with ACPI “soft” power buttons. Pressing the power button once would only put the machine to sleep and wouldn’t do squat if the machine were hung–you had to keep it depressed for four seconds or pull the plug on the computer. Now, most people who use computers regularly have adapted to it.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      segfault,
      Most people don’t think about cars the same way they do as computers. I have had to tell many people to hold a power button on their PC.

      At 70mph (or faster), you might want that car to turn off in quicker than 3 seconds.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      And that begs another question … in the old days of carbs and pre-electronic spark and fuel control it could be understood … but today, with all the electronics, which know vehicle speed precisely at all times …

      Why should any car be capable of going faster than the national speed limit?

      It is totally ridiculous to hear of people flying along at 100 or 120 mph shortly before losing control and dying …

  • avatar
    Geeky1

    I suppose I’m going to be the voice of dissent here.

    “her story was so outrageously inexplicable (…) that Ms Smith’s story can not be fully explained without relying on a belief in divine (or diabolical) intervention.”

    Oh please. The woman is clearly not a car person-at all-and she clearly doesn’t have a great grasp of how various systems in the car work. But that doesn’t mean that she’s incapable of describing her experience in a way that provides valid starting points for further investigation. Service managers/advisers/whatever you want to call them do it every day; you get someone that comes in and says “my car shakes” and end up writing on the work order “customer states that they experience a severe vibration when braking at speeds over about 45mph; road test vehicle and inspect brakes.”

    Sure, all I can do at this point is speculate, but I’ve got nothing better to do this morning, so… Let’s take another look at her testimony. The key points, as I saw it, were:
    1. The cruise control light illuminated and the car apparently then downshifted and took off on its own.
    2. She claims to have been unable to stop the vehicle, even with both feet on the pedal.
    3. She claims that putting the car in neutral or reverse did nothing.
    4. She claims that the car continued to rev after she got it pulled over.
    5. She claims that when her husband got into the car (while the keyless, er, key was some 25ft away) and shifted it into neutral, it tried to re-start itself.

    Now. Let’s look at those one at a time. She claims the cruise control system engaged itself (or at least the light turned on) and the car took off. Do not dismiss this as an impossibility; it’s not. Allow me to give you an example from another car. In the 1980s, Mercedes-Benz installed what they called “overvoltage protection relays” in their cars. I’ve never opened one up so I can’t say for certainty what’s inside it, but I believe it’s either a voltage regulator or a zener diode and a relay and that’s about it. Regardless, its purpose is to regulate the power supply to the car’s ECM and ABS module. When the OVP relay fails, the car-to use a highly technical term-loses its sh*t. It can cause the engine to surge, it can cause it to idle too low or too high (when it failed on my 560SEL it started surging to about 1500rpms intermittently when the brake pedal was pressed; then it would rev and hang-i.e. if i revved it in park to 2000 or 3500rpms or whatever, it’d stay there until I shut the engine off), it can cause the instrument cluster to act up, it can cause the ABS system to engage when it shouldn’t or not engage when it should. Point is, it is possible to experience a failure in an electrical system that causes the car to do all kinds of weird stuff. I realize that the old Jetronic systems are orders of magnitude less complex than the CAN-based systems in newer cars, but that doesn’t mean that the new systems are inherently less susceptible to this kind of stuff.

    Hell, I had one customer with a ML430 complain that she had all of the warning lights in the cluster come on while she was driving, then the car lost power and stalled. She re-started it and it drove fine. Brought it in, we found nothing. No codes, couldn’t reproduce the problem, everything worked fine. Told her if she was really worried she should take it to the dealership and have them look at it for a second opinion. Dealership couldn’t find anything either. For whatever reason, some component of that car’s computer system just decided one day “oh, shit, it’s time to have a seziure”-and that’s what it did. It may not be likely that the cruise control switched itself on, but it is not outside the realm of possibilty as you implicitly seem to think it is. The issue for me is why, if the cruise system caused the car to accelerate, depressing the brake pedal apparently didn’t cancel it. If the system is working properly, a split-second application of the brakes should be all it takes to cancel and reset it. But if it’s accelerating of its own accord, it is very clearly not working properly, and it may not have allowed a reset for whatever reason.

    Another consideration is that It’s also not outside the realm of possibility-indeed, I suspect it’s more likely-that the car experienced some kind of electrical power glitch that caused it to go to WOT and that the cruise control light was symptomatic of that, not an indication that the cruise system was actually engaged.

    She also claims that the car would not stop even with both feet on the pedal. I find this to be one of the more dubious claims she makes, but it is also not an impossible scenario. People argue that the brakes on any street car are more powerful than the engine; that’s probably indisputable. However, you’re not looking to overcome just the engine in this situation, you’re also looking to overcome the kinetic energy of a 4000# car traveling at 70, 80, 90mph or more. My knowledge of the braking system on the ES350 is, to one significant figure, 0. I do know, however, that the 2009 LS460 takes a whopping 210ft to stop from 60mph with the car working properly-compared to 200ft flat for an Escalade, and 197ft for a ’71 Buick Riviera on bias ply tires with dinky little discs and single piston calipers in the front and drums in the back. Braking is apparently not a priority on at least some Lexus models, and I can swallow the assertion that the brakes on the ES are bad enough that they can’t handle the engine and the car’s forward momentum.

    It’s also possible that she simply didn’t brake hard enough, fast enough, and that by the time she actually got on the brakes as hard as she should have, they had already faded to the point of uselessness. Further, it’s possible that she just didn’t have the strength to stop the car without vacuum assist. Her experience doesn’t necessarily require a mechanical or electrical failure of the braking system-something that a lot of people seem to believe.

    Her third claim, about the transmission; as I-and other people-said yesterday, it is probable that the car has a reverse lockout that prevents reverse (and probably park as well) from being engaged at any significant speed. As far as her apparent inability to get the car into neutral for some period of time goes, there are a couple of factors that could play into that. One, obviously, is panic. It’s pretty easy to overshoot neutral and grab reverse by accident when you’re in that situation. The other factor-again, something I also mentioned yesterday-is that the shifter is most likely not connected mechanically to the transmission. The ES350 has a “manumatic” gate in the shifter. As far as I know, ALL cars that have that separate gate for manual shifting have electronic shifter assemblies. If the car did experience an electrical glitch severe enough to cause it to go to WOT, it’s not implausible that the TCU would not respond correctly to the shifter being put into neutral. It’s also possible that the TCU will not allow shifts into neutral under certain conditions-WOT and high rates of speed would come to mind as two of the situations where, if the car were operating correctly, you are least likely to ask for neutral. Why, then, was she later apparently able to get it into neutral? The vehicle speed dropped or the TCU reset itself (one would imagine it would have some kind of watchdog timer, no?) and resumed normal operation.

    She claims that the engine continued to rev (presumably bouncing off the rev limiter) after she got it pulled over. Again, see my comments about the overvoltage relay in the Mercedes. This kind of problem is not an impossibility in the real world, at least in some cars. Refer to those comments again with reference to her claim that the car tried to re-start itself; if the car had a severe enough electrical malfunction I don’t see that it is out of the realm of possibility that if there was still accessory power to the car when her husband got in it, that moving the shifter to neutral could have caused a hiccup with the ECM (which, since the car has one of those keyless go systems or whatever you want to call them, presumably controls the starter) that could have triggered something like that.

    My point is that while her story does indeed sound rather improbable, and while it certainly needs to be taken with a healthy dose of salt, it would not necessarily take “the perfect storm” of cascading failures of multiple independent control systems to cause her experience. Potentially all it would take is an electrical problem effecting one or a small handful of computers on the car’s CAN bus.

    There’s also this story:

    http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/RunawayToyotas/hyundai-dealer-runaway-toyota-owner-free-car/story?id=9777027

    “The car kept trying to accelerate, but switching from neutral to drive and back again as needed allowed Haggerty to steer the car onto an off ramp and the three miles to the dealership.

    When he reached the dealership, the brakes and the tires were smoking. Haggerty put the car in neutral, but the engine was still revving. The service manager called a Toyota representative.

    According to Haggerty, the representative told the service manager to replace the gas pedal and the throttle and their sensors.”

    How likely do you think it is that he had the presence of mind to drop it into neutral, call the dealership, and then neutral drop the car repeatedly for 3 miles without once trying to lift the pedal with his foot? Is it possible? sure. People are stupid, and they often respond poorly in high stress situations. But given that he managed to control the car and get it to the dealership, and given that the service manager inspected the car and evidently did not find the floor mat to be a problem, I find that scenario rather unlikely. It’s certainly possible, but it doesn’t rule out the chance of a problem with the ETCS either.

  • avatar
    autoarcheologist

    Bravo Mike-in-Mich and Geeky1, you two have presented a very fact-based explanation for how this could happen, and I now owe my wife a serious apology.

    And my image of Toyota had dropped significantly.

  • avatar
    Steven02

    Why is everyone so quick to say what happened to her was BS? Electrical gremlins are hard to troubleshoot and produce very weird behaviors. I have had one car that some odd electrical issues.

    It was an 02 Formula Firebird 6speed. The dash lights would turn off while driving, and all of the gauges would go to 0, like the car was off, except the tach, that gauge worked. Radio didn’t work. The first time it happened, it happened on the way home from work, and I didn’t park the car in the garage, I parked it in front of the house. If it didn’t start, I didn’t want to try to get it out of the garage. My room is near the front of the house. Around midnight, I hear the car’s horn honk like it had just been locked. I get in it the next day, and everything is fine, except the time on the Radio had reset like it does when you lose battery.

    A few months later, it happened again, except the next time I started the car, the condition was still there. It went on for a few days, oddly enough, the speedometer started raising this time, slowly. Not anywhere close to the speed I was actually going. It didn’t go to zero when the car was off, which was funny to see me going 75, with the car turned off. Eventually, this problem went away again. My car was out of warranty, so I didn’t take it to a dealer.

    A few months later, it happened again. I had been asking in some Camaro and Firebird forums, and no one could explain it. I didn’t know where to start, so I started looking at fuses. I ended up pulling a fuse (for dash or radio, I don’t remember which) and all of the sudden the speedometer went to 0. The fuses I were pulling were the one’s inside the drivers door. I went and replaced the fuse and drove the car for a few years after and never had a problem.

    I tested the fuse. Its resistance would fluctuate. To make sure my meter was correct, I tested other fuses. Zero resistance.

    So yes, if there was an electrical gremlin involved, I wouldn’t be surprised. Would it be hard to duplicate and diagnosis, absolutely. But seeing what I have seen first hand in a vehicle, I would not be surprised that this problem exists.

  • avatar

    Uh-oh, Toyota is in serious trouble.
    Mr. Gilbert is able to trigger wide-open throttle simply by applying two different shorts simultaneously to the throttle wires.

    That raises a lot of questions:
    1. The throttle relies on very simple analog signals. Why are they not digital and more error-proof?
    2. Why is the redundancy in the throttle so easily fooled by a common-mode error signal that acts simultaneously on both sensors?
    3. Why doesn’t Toyota already have a brake override system, like they are now going to include for next model year?
    4. Is safety here the victim of too much cost cutting?

    I think, Toyota will now probably have to recall ALL cars with electronic throttle to upgrade them with a brake override system.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      Your open ended questions could lead to a million more. Would every auto maker to be required to have such fixes? Would older cars without them be allowed on roads?

      Holman Jenkins from the WSJ has it about right: “Trial lawyers love the electronic gremlin theory because it’s impossible to disprove in any individual case.”

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think it’s intractable; it should be feasible to investigate car crashes and find this failure mode, if investigators look for it.
      I just think a design in which the redundancy can be fooled so easily is way too simple. I would never make it like that (and I’m an engineer).
      And yes…. there should be safety standards for this…

  • avatar
    NickR

    The Family Guy needs to parody this…stat! I can see Lois in front of Congress now.

    One thing I didn’t hear her say, and please correct me if I missed it, that she simply tried turning the car off? I know that doesn’t cut all the electronics like turning it off in Park would but…

    Also, she says that she fully applied the footbrake. Unless things have changed dramatically, isn’t that pretty much a physical connection? And if they were applied and the car didn’t stop, would the pads be completely freakin’ shot?

    Incidentally, Dean and Sam Winchester are all over this story, or so I am told.

    • 0 avatar
      CarPerson

      Yes, she tried to shut it off but it would not shut off. This is her normal car so one would have to presume she knew of the 3-second delay. However, in a panic situation, she possibly could have only pressed it for only 2.75 seconds.

      I’m guessing here, but it sounds like the gearshift ended up in neutral and the transmission finally kicked into neutral. What was left of the brakes slowed the car enough for her to pull off the road to the left, where it sat, reving the engine against the limiter until her husband arrived.

      NO. The brakes are NOT always stronger than the gas. A vehicle going 90mph at full throttle will burn the brake pads off the vehicle if one attempts to bring the vehicle to a full stop without letting up on the throttle. The husband testified he, not Toyota, paid for the new pads, discs, and the other brake damage.

      Moisture (condensing humidity) in a major electrical connector will short all kinds of things. Wife’s Opel Manta required the door to be opened to turn on the dome light before the keyswitch would operate the starter. We finally traced it to the 10-wire connector.

      Mother’s Dynasty would go very weird across the dash. I had to train her (75 years old) to place the gearshift neutral, shut off the engine without locking the steering, re-start it, and put it back in Drive, never touching the brake or gas as she rebooted the computer. She got good doing that while the car was still moving along with the traffic.

      Over a half-dozen trips to the dealer failed to determine why the computer was crashing after a few miles after not being driven for a few days.

  • avatar
    CarPerson

    Geeky and Mike-in-Mich have really laid bare much of the technical aspects of this. Re-reading their posts would be informative.

    A point to highlight is that, yes, the brakes are still “hydraulic” but the controls for ABS, stability control, traction control, etc. do, in fact, operate the brakes by computer. At times these systems intervene between the driver’s command and the actual brake application. Other times the brakes are being applied by the computer without the driver’s knowledge or consent.

    In an actual skidding condition, the driver may bury the brake pedal but the ABS computer, in effect, pumps the brakes by momentarily releasing then re-applying the driver’s brake command. (I carefully worded this to make it clear it is the driver’s breaking rate that is re-applied, not some other arbitrary value.)

    In the Pirus, the claim is made that going over a pothole will cause the ABS computer to take up to a couple of seconds to respond to the driver’s brake command.

  • avatar
    frizzlefry

    My opinion, she is a lier. She sold the car after it tried to kill her. Obviously without warning the new buyers. The car has had 27,000 trouble free miles put on it since. Either she is lying or she is a heartless wench who sold a life threatening car to someone else. She looks nice to me, so I am going with lier.

  • avatar
    The Gold Tooth

    Good joke calling Safety Research & Strategies “independent.” You should know better, as it’s difficult to conceive of an outfit more completely in the pockets of the trial lobby that SR&S. Here’s a WSJ article that lays out the sordid story: http://tinyurl.com/y9bqawx .


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