The Toyota case is heading towards hearings in DC and to courts all over the country. Both sides are putting heavy artillery in position. Both sides of the SUA wars commission heavy caliber studies – both with inconclusive results. Toyota funded a study into the electronics in its vehicles. Before that, a group of lawyers had “sponsored” Safety Research and Strategies, a company that makes money by investigating auto-safety for those suing auto makers. Ford, which had been at the receiving end of an SRS fusillade during the Explorer crisis, called the company “supposed safety advocates who are actually just shills for trial attorneys.”
Here are the latest dispatches from the front lines:
SRS produced a Big Bertha of a 180 page research report, that can be downloaded here (if your Internet connection is up to it – I’m on one of Tokyo’s finest 50 Mbit connections, and I’m still waiting… ah, download completed.) The conclusion of the monster is that “sticking accelerator pedals do not appear to cause the SUA events,” and that basically nobody knows what the reason may be. SRS is pointing fingers at the drive-by-wire system, which they call – duh – “significantly different and more complex than the older, mechanical systems.”
The computer gremlin theory “taps into our almost instinctual fear that our machines will suddenly turn on us,” writes Popular Mechanics. “To judge by press accounts and statements from government officials, those innocuous-looking Toyota sedans and SUVs in millions of American driveways are somehow kin to the homicidal ’58 Plymouth Fury in the Stephen King novel “Christine”—haunted by technological poltergeists and prone to fits of mechanical mayhem.” Primordial fear at its finest.
Washington quickly took advantage of the automotive angst. The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform lobbed a heavy caliber staff memo that says: “Attention is now being focused on the electronic throttle control system (ETC) to determine whether sudden acceleration may be attributable to a software design problem or perhaps to electromagnetic interference.”
To provide counter-battery fire, Toyota hired the engineering research firm Exponent of Menlo Park, CA, to dig into its computers. Exponent found ”no evidence of problems in the electronics in Toyota and Lexus products,” says their study, that somehow found its way (guess how) to the Wall Street Journal.
Exponent bought six Toyota and Lexus vehicles, all equipped with the electronic throttle-control system. Then they threw all kinds of tests and stresses at the cars. When failures were induced in these sensors, Exponent says the electronic control module detected the problem and took appropriate action.
“Imposing these perturbations resulted in a significant drop in power rather than an increase,” Exponent says in the study. “In all cases, when a fault was imposed, the vehicle entered a fail-safe mode.”
So basically, instead of accelerating like a banshee, the cars on which Exponent performed a vivisection went in to limp mode, just good enough to crawl back to the next Toyota dealer.
Exponent is not finished with their investigation. “Testing and analysis by Exponent will continue for several months,” says the WSJ. So will the trench warfare. Armies of lawyers will record record amounts of billable hours, while the arms merchants of this war will deforest the earth to produce huge amounts of paper.