By on July 16, 2010

We didn’t make it down to the first meeting of the NHTSA-National Research Council panel tasked with studying unintended acceleration, but apparently we weren’t the only ones. A scan of the MSM confirms that a number of “more study is needed” stories were filed for the occasion, a good two weeks ago now, but we’ve been pointed towards the presentations for that meeting [available for download here, all 128 slides in PDF format here], and we feel comfortable drawing a few conclusions from them. In fact, we’d even argue that this data puts a lot of the controversy over unintended acceleration in Toyotas to rest.

As the slide above indicates, there have always been three possible outcomes to the hunt for a ghostly electronic problem with Toyota’s throttle control units: either there’s a problem, there’s not a problem, or there’s a weakness that can be learned from. Remember, NHTSA has already fined Toyota for a slow recall of sticky pedals… for this study, we’re looking at instances of electronic issues. So, have NHTSA and the NRC found anything that indicates any kind of problem?

On the face of it, they have. Looking at the Vehicle Owner Questionnaire reports filed in the NHTSA database, it’s clear that complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyotas have increased massively since 2008. But one slide alone doesn’t tell the whole story… first we must look at how this data came about.

Starting with 426,911 complaints since 2000, NHTSA eventually narrowed down to UA complaints only, finding nearly 20k incidents, which were winnowed down by “manual review” to about 11,500 complaints. How thorough this “manual review” was is a crucial issue though, because Bertel has pointed out that NHTSA’s database counts a number of cases as “UA-related” even when the circumstances don’t seem to fit the diagnosis. Still, even assuming the data are all relatively kosher, you’re left with Toyota causing about 3,000 of the 11,500 cases of unintended acceleration. This is the first sign that the 2009-2010 data is being skewed.

Another way to look at the data: incidents per 100k units. Already we can see weakness in the claim that Toyotas are uniquely affected by some kind of mysterious problem: Volvo, a company built on its reputation for safety, has had nearly an identical rate of UA complaints per 100k vehicles.

After NHTSA and the NRC “manually reviewed” the complaints (theoretically winnowing out fraudulent claims), Toyota starts looking even better by comparison. Before October of 2009, Toyota’s UA complaints were on-par with GM and Chrysler, and actually lagged behind Ford. Only post October 2009, when the media-fueled scandal started to take off, did Toyota’s UA complaints start getting out of hand. So, what can we conclude from this?

Yes, even NHTSA admits that there’s a “publicity effect” going into the spike in Toyota UA complaints. Given that the rest of the data fail to provide a pattern of UA problems in Toyotas, media and lawyer frenzy are the only plausible explanations for the recent spike in complaints. But we’re not done yet… next, let’s look at these incidents and try to find out what’s going on.

This might just be the most significant slide in the entire string of presentations, as it proves that the overwhelming majority of Toyota UA complaints took place at low speeds (another slide shows that the majority took place in parking lots). Note that these are not the high-speed freeway terror events that the media so blithely latched onto at the height of the frenzy. The fact that nearly all of these complaints happened at low speed is yet another parallel to the Audi 5000 debacle.

Another major factor: age. Extremely young and extremely old drivers are far more likely to experience sudden unintended acceleration… on this basis alone, it should seem clear that driver error is a major factor in most UA cases. Taken with the fact that the majority of these cases took place at low speeds, in parking lots, and that most complaints have been filed since the scandal broke, and the picture becomes fairly clear: the recall has given a green light to complain about any kind of accident that involves a Toyota that is unable to stop. What any car could do that would make it impossible control under 15 miles per hour is difficult to imagine.

This having been said, if you break the data down to incidents involving Toyota Camrys, you do get some interesting results. The fifth-generation Camry’s rates are far lower than the sixth-generation, which is a difficult statistic to square with the publicity effect hypothesis… especially because this graph shows only data for pre-recall complaints.

Finally, the only other correlation to be made from the NHTSA-NRC data is that electronic throttle control does play into the rate of complaints, although because this graph is not weighted for the publicity effect, it’s far from conclusive.

The upshot? Flawed as it is from the get-go (due to its amplification of the publicity effect), the NHTSA VOQ data shows few patterns that indicate an underlying problem unique to Toyota vehicles. Within the subset of Toyota UA complaints, there are patterns pointing to electronic throttles and the Mk.VI Camry, but these (though intriguing) do not explain why complaints of UA in Toyotas have taken off in the last nine months. In fact, the data more broadly suggests that Toyota is one of several manufacturers with elevated levels of UA incidents, and most of those incidents occur in situations where nothing prevents full control of the vehicle and where “accidents” are generally higher.

NHTSA and the NRC should continue to look into UA, and should continue to look into the possible causes for elevated complaint levels about Toyota, Ford, GM, Chrysler and Volvo cars, but the search for a “ghost in the machine” that uniquely affects Toyota products is clearly headed nowhere fast. Don’t expect outcome #1 from the top slide to come about, and even coming up with something conclusive for an outcome #3 seems unlikely.

In his presentation on human factors in UA [in PDF here], Richard Compton, Director of the Office of Behavioral Safety Research estimates that there are 10b “opportunities” for pedal misapplication each day, and he cites research showing that “correcting” pedal misapplication usually makes the situation even worse. His conclusions?

This, in a nutshell, is what the whole Toyota unintended acceleration scandal is boiling down to: either pedal design or some other ergonomic issue makes UA more common, in which case the government can regulate it, or Americans are really becoming worse drivers and are always glad to have a convenient scapegoat for their ineptitude. As unsatisfying as these conclusions are, making peace with them is the only healthy choice at this point. Unless, of course, Government-run “behavioral training and adjustment” sounds like a practical solution to you.

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38 Comments on “Unintended Acceleration In Toyotas: The Ghost In The Data...”


  • avatar
    1996MEdition

    These last bullet point must have carried over to page 52….

    4. Burning Toyoda-san at the stake

    5. Putting foot in mouth

    • 0 avatar
      palazzo2010

      I seriously doubt Toyota had any more faults than any other non-American brand.  Toyota was a target because Tesla needed a deal….and Toyota’s old NUMMI factory.  The founder had been eyeballing this property for a while, but could not afford it.  So with government backing, the doors of opportunity opened to Tesla with a too-good-to-be-true deal on the NUMMI factory which value was listed at $1 billion USD.  And strange how all the Toyota recalls kind of vanished after this deal was inked in May 2010 and Toyota ‘agreed’ to invest in Tesla and paid the biggest fine in history.  The oil companies have gotten too big and wiley for the US government to push around, so they are looking for ‘new partners’ to button up their government pensions and investment portfolios.  Taxpayers need to get career politicians out because they are what is really ruining our country and costing us more in federal and state taxes.  Some political positions are not even full time yet they get lifetime pensions!!!  These behind the scenes deals could not be so easily made with new blood in office focused on constituents instead of making business deals and access to insider trading type information.  Vote for new blood in November!!!!  Do a write in name of Superman if you want – just do not vote for business as usual!!!!! 

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    Its amazing that this study has been around for two weeks and nobody has reported on it (save for the brief mention by Cammy here). It provides some very crucial statistics on what people have been arguing about about SUA up to this point. That there is statistical evidence that SUA occurs based on human factors such as demographics and its prevalence in the news, age of driver .

    The fact that demographics play such a large role in SUA explains the differences between models like the GenV & GenVI Camry. Since factors like geography, targeted marketing, volume of sales, and demographics and age of buyer would play a role in the number of SUA complaints.

    The insurance industry knows and uses this very fact. Its well known that certain vehicle models based on their demographics are much more likely to get into certain types of accidents. Which is why its expensive to insure a WRX. This also the reason that your age determines your insurance rate.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I’m not sure the under 15 mph phenomenon is as significant as you infer. If you’re backing out of a parking space in a crowded lot and your car starts accelerating, you’ll probably hit something before you reach 15 mph. And if the UA gremlin is predominantly activated when the car is at rest, you would expect to see most incidents at low speed, when they’re just starting to accelerate.

    That said, I agree we’re mostly looking at driver error, but the discrepancy between gens 5 and 6 does seem to indicate that something is going on.

    • 0 avatar
      Dynamic88

      If I’m understanding this stuff correctly, the “initiation speed” would be the speed at which the car took off. For under <15mph that could be anywhere from idle to 14.9mph.

      You're correct in saying that a parking lot incident will probably end before 15mph is achieved, but I believe it's the speed one is going when the car takes off without the driver "knowingly" giving it the giddy-up command.

      That said, I wonder why they chose to use <15mph ? I'd think that most parking lot scenarios would happen at idle to 5mph. Why were those parameters chosen?

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Very nice job.

    I have not previously seen the data that shows the overwhelming majority of SUA incidents are happening <15mph. I've never discounted driver error all together, but have been reluctant to blame the driver. Now I'm a bit more ready to blame the driver – most of the time.

    There are still some problems in my mind (Go ahead, give me your best zinger :-)

    Toyota (and other makers) complaints are not exclusively of the parking lot variety. What is making a car cruising down the highway at 70 take off? It's hard to believe pedal misapplication in these situations. We do still have the confirmed case of a man in NJ bringing his car into a dealer, with engine racing uncontrollably. He did control the car, by shifting between D and N, and he did use the brakes as evidenced by them being very very hot. I still need to know from Toyota what caused this to happen. Remember this is a confirmed case, witnessed by the dealer and his service technician.

    It's fine to point out that Volvo has about the same rate per 100K, but let's also admit that both Toyota and Volvo are significantly higher than other makers. Is it possible to change "Alleged UA Complaint Rate per 100K MY 1998-2010" to "….MY 1998-2008" ? I'd be interested in the rate per 100K w/o the publicity effect. That said, it's still undeniable that different makers have wildly different rates of "alleged" (and it is alleged until proven) rates of SUA. Should they not be about the same? Unless of course there is a preponderance of bad drivers piloting certain makes. I don't know the demographics for Volvo but certainly Toyota sells to a huge cross-section of the population. Some further breakdowns would also be interesting. GM for example, for the years covered, has up to 8 different makes. I can't help but point out -again, still- that Buick should have the highest rate of SUA if indeed SUA is primarily caused by the elderly. A breakdown by make would be interesting.

    After NHTSA and the NRC “manually reviewed” the complaints (theoretically winnowing out fraudulent claims), the Toyota starts looking even better by comparison. Before October of 2009, Toyota’s UA complaints were on-par with GM and Chrysler, and actually lagged behind Ford. Only post October 2009, when the media-fueled scandal started to take off, did Toyota’s UA complaints start getting out of hand. So, what can we conclude from this?

    Hmmm. It looks to me like Toyota, after manual review, and pre-publicity still has significantly more complaints than many other makers. True that Ford is way ahead on that graph, but Toyota is way up there too – as are GM and Chrysler. Toyota still doesn’t look too good to me, unless you’re only comparing to Ford.

    “Interim Results: Driver Age” I’m assuming the axis labeled “number of drivers” actually means “number of drivers reporting a SUA event”. If so, this graph is producing some seemingly strange stuff. People 41 have among the lowest rates of SUA but look out – a year later they’re as bad as people in their 60s. Not to worry though, by the time they are 46 they’re as good a drivers as they were at 31.

    As you mention, there is a pre-publicity discrepancy between Gens.

    NHTSA and the NRC should continue to look into UA, and should continue to look into the possible causes for elevated complaint levels about Toyota, Ford, GM, Chrysler and Volvo cars, …

    Agreed.

    … but the search for a “ghost in the machine” that uniquely affects Toyota products is clearly headed nowhere fast.

    It may not be unique to Toyota, but there may still be an electronics problem (please not that I’m not claiming there is an electronics problem). My view is let’s wait until the NASA boys are done and see what they have to say.

    This, in a nutshell, is what the whole Toyota unintended acceleration scandal is boiling down to: either pedal design or some other ergonomic issue makes UA more common, …

    Several of the B&B have been suggesting exactly this from early on.

    I must relate my own SUA experience earlier this week. No suspense – clearly driver error. I was driving my employer’s delivery van, which I hardly ever do. Therefore I was unfamiliar with the truck (F350 cube van). I had meant to hit the brake, but stepped on the gas mistakenly. The sudden lurch forward, along with the rising engine noise made me realize immediately that I’d hit the wrong pedal. Luckily, I was not backing but going forward, nor was I near any people, or near a building. No accident, just a quick rush of adrenalin. This of course was a parking lot scenario. (Well, technically a sidewalk scenario as I had to move the truck up on the sidewalk to deliver some items to a particular door. I had idled well away from the building before deciding that I wanted to stop and misapplying my foot)

    • 0 avatar
      lindy

      Regarding the demographics for Volvo, I have observed for decades that the advertising touting the crash protection of Volvos has attracted a plethora drivers who know that they are unskilled or don’t care about other driver’s safety.  An example that I’ve seen too many times; the car that pulls in front of mine from a side street with too little room and no urgent acceleration is a Volvo.  I wonder how many Volvo drivers switched to Toyota Camry for durability reasons.

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    The problem with the whole, “let’s wait till there is results” is that the final results aren’t going to be released until Fall 2011 when most of this will be irrelevant by then. Let’s keep in mind, UA has been studied for 20 years.

    “Needs more research”, and “research ongoing” is common statement to defer responsibility and conclusion, however, considering the implications of the study towards legitimate commercial interests preliminary conclusions can be released while the study continues, with the caveat of ‘ongoing research’.

  • avatar
    MrIcky

    The presentation is interesting reading.

    I have to think on a human error standpoint that a large factor of the Camry is it’s almost dead silent and provides little feedback.

    So are Volvos

  • avatar

    Bravo.

    This article again demonstrates the rapidly deteriorating relevance of the mainstream media. The WSJ cites ditzy secretaries with no name. Ed cites facts.

    • 0 avatar
      Dynamic88

      The all singing, all dancing mainstream media is effectively dead. It will persist as a zombie for a while, but it’s dead. The reason is straight forward – lack of expertise.

      Turns out knowing something is more important than having studied journalism. Being focused on a subject is more important than covering the President today, the war tomorrow, the dog show next week…… WSJ should stick to financial matters.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      Turns out knowing something is more important than having studied journalism.

      You’d think the WSJ would know the limitations of J-Skool grads. Contracting with outside experts who can write – and providing all information about their full time professional credentials and work – would be the best model.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      WSJ is owned by Murdoch. ‘Nuff said.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    If there is a correlation to age among alleged UA incidents, then stats that compare cohort populations should show whether age is a statistically significant factor.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    So how many of these cars had manual transmissions?

    Time to teach the customers how to find NEUTRAL. Mentioned the unintended acceleration to some Toyota driving friends and a couple older friends didn’t even know where neutral was!!! They practiced a little after that.

    • 0 avatar
      ktappe

      Almost none had manual trannys. Americans won’t buy them. While I’m sure a high % of readers here drive stick, we’re not exactly an accurate cross-sampling of the average shave/put on makeup-while-driving American.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      This isn’t related to the Camery, but the first time I drove a Prius-style hybrid (Lexus CT200h), I honestly didn’t know how to put the car in N because it used a P-R-N-D setup I had never seen before.

  • avatar
    Tachyon

    I appreciate your zeal to cut Toyota a break on this, but the reality is that since ETC came into being (with a measurement period cut off BEFORE the scandal broke) Toyota’s per-vehicle-shipped rate of UA complaints was 4X GM’s. That’s straight out of the previously published data.

    That California Patrolman who died in the fiery crash of the Lexus was an experienced driver, with years of training, and certainly would have pried the throttle pedal off the floor or out of the tangle of floor mats (the mats were actually in the trunk) were those the problem. They weren’t the issue, almost certainly, with an experienced, cool-headed driver behind the wheel and a long straight road to give him time to try to cope with the issue. They even had time to call 911, so they have plenty of time to untangle floor mats or pry up the pedal.

    The longer you ‘deniers’ promulgate the “witch hunt” theory, the longer it will until the core issue is discovered and remedied. There are clearly some fraudulent reports, but you ignore the real deaths and the real issues.

    • 0 avatar
      Factsonly

      The mats were certainty not in the trunk. This was an ES350 with RX350 Toyota all weather floor mats on top of the factory carpet ones. This was a dealer loaner car that was not properly maintained

      The report is available on-line to help the facts stay straight (see carquestions.ca)

    • 0 avatar
      Tachyon

      Factsonly,

      If by “properly maintained”, you mean ‘had the wrong floormats in it’, there might be some veracity to your claim– The reality is that “poor design” is clearly at fault.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Tachyon – ahhhh, NEUTRAL???? Why didn’t the trooper/patrolman put the transmission into neutral? Seems to me that ANY experienced driver would give that a thought in dire circumstances such as those.

    Now was the police officer a trooper, a dispatcher, a traffic control person, or ???? Alot of different levels of driver experience on a police squad roster. Used to work in law enforcement.

  • avatar
    Tachyon

    Joe Average,

    As I said, he was a California Highway Patrol Officer. He was also ex-military (Air Force Sergeant), so had lots and lots of training.

    It’s been very well covered in the mainstream media (And, without anti-Toyota bias.), but here are some links:

    http://www.10news.com/news/20831532/detail.html

    http://www.sandiego6.com/news/local/story/Santee-Saylor-CHP-San-Diego-runaway-car/tnzwN-1KzkaL6AGAjQsByg.cspx

    http://pressroom.toyota.com/pr/tms/statement-from-toyota-motor-sales-101993.aspx

    Or, just Google “Mark Saylor CHP Lexus crash” and you’ll get the gory details.

    The reality is that Toyota would probably STILL be sweeping it under the proverbial floormat, but for this high-profile case ( an experienced driver, off-duty CHP, dies in a fiery crash, wiping out his family, at the wheel of an out-of-control Lexus.) like this and the swarms of lawyers bringing it to the world’s attention.

    Toyota’s release immediately tried to blame this on the floormats, but subsequent reports question the explanation– especially since so many of the 2008 reports were for cars w/o mats in them.

  • avatar
    Tachyon

    I know that Mr. Niedermeyer believes the statistics indicate no tendency toward higher incidence of UA problems with Toyota products, but Consumer Reports analysis of the NHTSA’s data was reported on AOL-Autos recently as follows

    “Consumer Reports recently uncovered NHTSA’s log books from 2008 that showed Toyota and Lexus vehicles accounted for over 40% of the complaints about uncontrolled acceleration in 2008 models. That’s a significant percentage, especially considering that Toyota doesn’t sell 40% of the cars on the market (it sells about 15% of all cars).”

    The raw data trend, since the en masse implementation of ETC circuits early in the decade still indicates that Toyota/Lexus rates of UA reports (and this is all pre-bad-publicity) was several times competing manufacturers– with the exception of Volvo, who also seems to have a problem– but hasn’t responded to it yet.

  • avatar
    Tachyon

    Joe Average,

    As for the usual questions, most asked-and-answered as we say in depositions, the quick rundown on the obvious questions regarding the CHP-in-fiery-Lexus-crash-under-UA run like this:

    1) Why not turn off the key? “It’s electronic– no key to turn off”
    2) Well, how about applying the brakes? “Uh, yeah, the Lexus brake linings were fried down to nothing. He tried hard to get it stopped– and destroyed his brakes in the process. Estimated speed was 120 when they crashed at the T in the road.”
    3) Well, how about the Start/Stop button? “Lexus has followed suit with this silly START button thing– But, if you merely press the button when you are at speed, as a ‘safety feature to avoid unintentional activation’ the software ignores your request. Apparently, you have to hold the button down for several seconds to convince the microprocessor that you REALLY want to stop… It’s far from obvious, the car was a loaner, so wasn’t Officer Saylor’s primary car, nobody told him about that ‘software feature’– and if you’d taken a poll of most Lexus ES350 owners with that feature, most couldn’t have told you that’s what you had to do either”
    4) How about putting it in Neutral? “Well, maybe, but, like the STOP button and the Prius’ controls– it’s all software operated. Someone else who reported a runaway ES350 did claim he got his software into neutral, finally, but he had to get it slowed below 50. By then Officer Saylor had no brakes left.”

    Car and Driver, the opinionated folks they are, ran a ‘debunk’ article right after it happened– to the effect that “everybody knows that these engines can’t overcome the brakes”, so claimed initially that it was all driver error. Until, some smart reader pointed out that: 1) the guy’s pads were burned away, so clearly the C&D angle was wrong. 2) That at WOT (Wide Open Throttle) the first thing you lose is your vacuum brake assist… after the first pedal depression– it’s gone, no more brake assist. So, Officer Saylor must have been mechanically pushing like crazy with no vacuum assist and still couldn’t get it to stop. 3) Oh, by the way, at 120 MPH you have tremendous kinetic energy (16 times what you have at 30 MPH)– there was no way for his brakes to overcome BOTH the runaway engine while dissipating all the kinetic energy.

    C&D has been noticeably silent on the topic, since their initial coverage was pretty insensitive and way off the mark on the physics of the crash. Of course, C&D also famously took a couple of hot laps in a NISMO 370Z and proceeded to run it through the wall at VIR, having burned up the brakes right away on that NISMO Nissan. Moral of the Story: I wouldn’t trust C&D’s opinions on matters of braking dynamics and vehicle control.

    So, the net is that everybody can question the (deceased) driver’s skills as much as they want, but for my money if a 20 year veteran military/CHP Officer can die in an out of control Lexus– you really think it can’t happen to you?

    My issue with Toyota’s response is that they already knew they had big problems in Europe and were taking action there– while ignoring the episodes in the US completely. It would be like Ford in the exploding Pinto caper years ago saying “Gee, we have Pintos exploding in New England so we’re implementing remedies there, but we don’t think it’s a problem in Texas, California and Oregon”

    Bless Officer Saylor. Without his high profile case, Toyota’d still be sitting on their thumbs, in denial.

    • 0 avatar
      Factsonly

      Tachyon – you obviously know something about cars, but please stick to the facts

      Surely you do not believe that brake boost will run out after one application? “first thing you lose is your vacuum brake assist… after the first pedal depression– it’s gone, no more brake assist” Sounds like you got a little excited here and started to exaggerate?

      Second, NHTSA has proven that a full sized, American male, and many females have the leg strength to depress the brake pedal hard enough to stop a WOT, runaway vehicle without brake assist. This has been tested & demonstrated repeatedly for Congress (but you will burn out the pads)

      Now neutral, park or even reverse will work on runaway vehicles. It will automatically cut the throttle and place the vehicle in a neutral gear (contrary to Mrs. Smith’s tearful Congressional testimony)

      Lastly, you can not compare the Prius to an ES350. Besides the obvious that they are both passenger vehicles with 4 round wheels, the technology inside the vehicle is very different. Your unfortunate driving experience in the Prius can be attributed to driver error

    • 0 avatar
      norichard2010

      factsonly, one thing you do not have is facts. Take, for example, this howler you put forth:

      “Surely you do not believe that brake boost will run out after one application? ‘first thing you lose is your vacuum brake assist… after the first pedal depression– it’s gone, no more brake assist’ Sounds like you got a little excited here and started to exaggerate?”

      Think about what a vacuum is: reduced air mass/pressure. With a nearly closed throttle, yes, you have a vacuum, hence vacuum assist on the brakes. But when the throttle is open, it’s just like a leaky bell jar. No vacuum on the air intake. As soon as you push down on the brake pedal, whatever vacuum reservoir you had is gone, and it can’t be replenished until the throttle closes and restricts the airflow.

      Or how about this uninformed statement:

      “Now neutral, park or even reverse will work on runaway vehicles. It will automatically cut the throttle”

      Maybe that’s true on the model you drive, but it is demonstrably false on my ’98 Ford Taurus. In fact, on icy roads, cutting the throttle in neutral is the last thing you want. The throttle holds the engine speed, so that if you put it back into drive, the sudden engine drag doesn’t act like you slammed on your brakes. Even in drive, with no foot on the gas pedal, the throttle will hold open enough so that the car feels like it’s coasting. Neutral, drive, neutral, drive, gives only the tiniest lurch as the transmission re-connects.

      After driving a manual for eleven years, I dreaded driving an automatic in winter. Having experienced these, uh, “interesting” design decisions from Ford, I can understand why they would think they’re helping winter drivers.

      Having been a programmer for almost thirty years, I know there is no such thing as a bug-free complex system. After the known bugs are eliminated, one can only hope to mitigate the remaining, unknown bugs, and it’s better to do that in hardware than in software. Read up on the Therac-25 disaster to see why that’s true.

    • 0 avatar
      Tachyon

      Oh, come on Factsonly– Unless you are Jay Leno or Seinfeld, I guarantee I have more cars in the garage (> 30) and more time in the seat than you. I regular drive a spectrum of the latest SUVs, Corvettes, BMWs and Audis to some pretty trick vintage Porsches. And, just returned from a 6000 mile cross-country rally/adventure.

      When the guy at the rental desk hands you the Prius fob and says “I hope you can back this out of the stall, most people have problems with these new Priuses, do you want a lesson on how to use their strange controls?”… You know that Toyota has lost the recipe. That’s exactly what the rental guy in Florida said to me when he gave me the contract and keys. It was a mediocre car, with lousy ergonomics but great gas mileage. There are better hybrids and Plug-ins coming.

    • 0 avatar
      Tachyon

      Factsonly,

      You might want to pull your “Physics for Liberal Arts Majors” book off your Ikea shelf and review Boyle’s Law. The engine acts as an “air pump” drawing air through the intake. Normally this draws significant vacuum in ‘ordinary’ cars (High duration cams can have too much overlap, thus breaking the vacuum “seal” and losing vacuum) and that vacuum is continuously used as force to ‘multiply’ brake lever moment applied against the brake’s hydraulic system.

      The problem with ‘full throttle’ is that it, well, you know, it opens the throttle, dissipating the vacuum. Once the vacuum in the master cylinder is released with that first brake pedal application, well, it’s gone. With a throttle stuck open, it can’t be replenished– Hence, the ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone’ comment, which I stand by. Basically, in normal operation, you’d never have full throttle and hard braking for extended periods. Unless your Toyota throttle is stuck open and you’re about to die.

      There are a bunch of funny-but-scary stories about early windshield wiper systems that were similarly vacuum driven. At idle, cruising along, you’d have plenty of vacuum and the wipers worked great. However, pull out to pass that truck in the rain, get a good dose of spray from the wheels, stomp on the gas to pass AND… the wipers would slow to a crawl, due to loss of vacuum.
      People died like that and now you never see vacuum-driven wiper systems. (Google it!)

      When the throttle opens, the vacuum is lost. That’s how the physics works.

      As for the floormat location in the Saylor case, there have been all kinds of reports about what really happened, were the mats to blame, etc? I can’t add anything more to that. The truth will eventually come out in the waves of litigation yet to come. I still stand by the statement that if an experienced CHP Patrol guy can die like that… well, you can too.

      In the meantime, Toyota recalled millions more cars this week. They built great cars in the 80s. Too bad they lost the recipe.

    • 0 avatar
      Tachyon

      Factsonly:

      If this were true…:

      “Second, NHTSA has proven that a full sized, American male, and many females have the leg strength to depress the brake pedal hard enough to stop a WOT, runaway vehicle without brake assist. This has been tested & demonstrated repeatedly for Congress (but you will burn out the pads)”…

      …Officer Saylor and his family would be alive today. When you burn out your pads, you lose the ability to develop the necessary friction at the rotor. And, by the way, you face a host of other issues including the boiling of the cheap OEM brake fluid these systems use.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    All the more reason to have a clutch.

    Tachyon – excellent detailed reply.

    • 0 avatar
      Tachyon

      I totally agree on the clutch! We build custom-drivetrain cars and 90% of what we build are manuals at our insistence.

      This whole computer-controlled-everything push is totally out of hand. That Prius I rented in Florida last week was a great example– Unless the the brakes-locks-seatbelts-‘gearshift’ were operated in exactly the right sequence, the panel would just light up, error out and refuse to move the car. The error message had some babble about needing to be in “Park” first– except I HAD been in park. Like the iDrive on BMW, maybe were are still in the equivalent phase of Windows 1.0, where it was just more hassle than it was worth?

      I’m not sure that Toyota’s been any worse than the “Big 3″ were in the heyday, BUT it’s clear that Toyota has gotten complacent. They clearly had data indicating incidents were occurring and damages and injuries were resulting… but chose to do nothing. Toyota just doesn’t deserve the ‘free pass’ they’ve been getting– it’s just not the same customer-centric company they were 20 years ago. And, this whole episode shows it in graphic detail.

      Their mainstream cars just aren’t much better these days either– Corolla’s long in the tooth and they just aren’t inspired cars anymore. Same’s true of Honda, for that matter. I put 5000 seat miles recently in a buddy’s late-model Honda Civic– and absolutely hated that car after the first 300 miles, bad ergonomics, buzzy, laggy drivetrain, terrible seats. I just don’t know anymore why I’d buy either of them over a Malibu or the new Ford.

      Most of my daily driving’s in an A8, so am probably spoiled, but having put lots of miles in top-selling Honda and Toyota cars lately, I can honestly say “I don’t get it”. Let’s see if Toyota gets its Mojo back in the next few years.

    • 0 avatar
      d002

      The clutch in Toyotas is computer controlled !

      “Already we can see weakness in the claim that Toyotas are uniquely affected by some kind of mysterious problem: Volvo, a company built on its reputation for safety, has had nearly an identical rate of UA complaints per 100k vehicles.”

      But Volvo (and Ford Europe, using Volvo common parts) has recalled vehicles in Australia and Europe for exactly the same problem – uncontrolled acceleration.  So this really strengthens the case against Toyota.

      “Before October of 2009, Toyota’s UA complaints were on-par with GM and Chrysler, and actually lagged behind Ford. Only post October 2009, when the media-fueled scandal started to take off, did Toyota’s UA complaints start getting out of hand. So, what can we conclude from this?”

      We can conclude that the problem which had been dismissed by Toyota dealers was realised to be a serious problem.
      The dismissal of the problem by Toyota is well documented.

      “Another major factor: age. Extremely young and extremely old drivers are far more likely to experience sudden unintended acceleration… on this basis alone, it should seem clear that driver error is a major factor in most UA cases.”

      It isn’t clear at all.  There is only one young spike, which is within the range of error.
      Most Toyota owners are old (in fact most new car owners are old), so the old age spike is irrelevant.

      “This having been said, if you break the data down to incidents involving Toyota Camrys, you do get some interesting results. The fifth-generation Camry’s rates are far lower than the sixth-generation, which is a difficult statistic to square with the publicity effect hypothesis… especially because this graph shows only data for pre-recall complaints.”

      It can be easily explained – the fifth generation did not have drive-by-wire.
      Which strongly suggests that that is the problem and not “driver error”.

  • avatar

    Has anyone here seen a tin whisker? I have (I have some samples from NASA). Until I saw them, I had no idea what I was looking for.

    Thanks to an invitation from a scientist at NIST, I have been participating in an aerospace industry weekly teleconference on tin whiskers for the past two years. Participants, including myself have consider it possible that tin whiskers could be responsible for sudden acceleration and other odd behavior in automobiles manufactured after 2002-2003. Dr. Gilbert of Southern Indiana University has participated in the teleconference and shared with us what he had learned (I was the one who invited him to attend).

    Dr. David Gilbert has demonstrated that a low resistance or shorted input between the wires from the pedal electronics to the electronics control module will cause Toyotas to open their throttles full. A tin whisker could induce such a short and as Dr. Gilbert proved, pushing as hard as you can on the brake pedal will not overcome the throttle being held full open.

    Perhaps the problem is due to leadfree manufacturing (which Toyota states on its website it began in 2002-3)? Perhaps it is software? We don’t yet know but we can be reasonably certain that not all the accidents are caused by the owners of the vehicles. You can see pictures of the Toyota parts at my website [www.hlinstruments.com//RoHS_articles/Toyota/]

    The pedal assembly has a printed circuit board layout that is not as well designed as it could be. In particular, the tiny integrated circuit that converts the signals from the Hall effect sensors (that senses pedal position via a magnet attached to the pedal arm) into 1-5Vdc signals sent to the electronic control module is very close to the edge of the board. The board has serrated edges which indicates it was snapped out of a large panel of these boards after the parts were soldered to it. It’s possible a trace or lead has fractured or one of the capacitors or resistors. We know that leadfree solder is more brittle than tin-lead. Perhaps a few boards are marginal and over time a lead opens or becomes intermittent?

    Whiskers are very hard to find. Only about 20% of them are visible to the naked eye and only in light reflecting off them at a certain angle. The remainder require a microscope and to see them in great detail you need a scanning electron microscope with an X-ray fluorescence detector. Not something you average auto repair shop has.

    Even if tni-lead solder is still being used, the components themselves, thanks to RoHS, are now mostly pure tin plated. Some companies have the gall to advertise their tin platings won’t grow whiskers. Only time will tell if that’s true. The standard (industry approved test) for whisker proof tin finish (JESD-201) is 4000 hours and the resulting whiskers can be no longer than 50 microns (0.002″). 4000 hours is less than a year. What happens after 4000 hours? Your guess is as good as mine. To quote a NASA researcher friend (Lyudmyla Panashchenko), “sometimes tin whiskers”.

    Auto dealers call another friend of mine (Dr Henning Leidecker) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who is one of the world’s experts on the subject of tin whiskers.

    This is why the US DOT contacted NASA to investigate Toyota’s problems. And, by the way, DOT may have said they found no problems, but NASA isn’t finished with it’s investigation nor is the National Academy of Sciences.

    Dr. Leidecker said that in the last four years his office has been contacted by seven major suppliers of automotive electronics inquiring about failures in their products caused by tin whiskers. He said his office has contacted Toyota offering to help analyze its acceleration problem, but hasn’t heard back. For full context, read the rest of the article [http://wtop.com/?nid=108&sid=1898265].

    It’s not just the removal of lead from tin-lead solder that is a potential whisker problem, its’ that parts are now being plated in pure tin and they can grow tin whiskers “with a certain amount of aging”. According to NASA, whiskers can grow in hours, days, weeks, months or years. It depends on at least six factors; the quality of the tin plating, the residual stress in the coating, was the coating annealed or not, grain uniformity, temperature, humidity, and unknown other factors we don’t yet understand which is what makes it so difficult to stop whiskers from growing and is why there are so many papers published on the subject yet we still do not understand why or how they grow.

    So yes, is entirely within the realm of possibility that “new” products have failed due to tin whiskers or perhaps dendritic growth.

    NASA cannot tell us who the manufacturers are who reported these events due to confidentiality agreements. Dr. Leidecker says they get these calls from other industries as well and most request a non-disclosure agreement. NASA feels it’s better to get some information rather than none, don’t you agree?

    A few months ago I was at the 4th International Conference on Tin Whiskers at CALCE at the University of Maryland where it was reported that 31% of all laptops fail within 3 years. This is the link to the report http://www.squaretrade.com/pages/laptop-reliability-1109/ No information is given as to what has failed. Is it due to whiskers? We do not know.

    What we do know is that the laws of physics have not been repealed. Tin will most certainly grow whiskers so using leadfree solder and tin plated components has to result in tin whiskers growing.

    NASA continues to log failures. NASA Goddard has signed a non-disclosure statement so they cannot comment on the study at this time.

    The EU was warned that tin whiskers and brittle joints would result if lead was banned from electronic assemblies but went ahead and banned lead from tin-lead solder and platings on parts. They acknowledged the possibility of reduced reliability under intense pressure from hi reliability industries and did exempt some products (military, aerospace, etc…). What difference did it make since the majority of component manufacturers refused to continue to offer tin-lead plated leads? That is why NASA replates it’s components with tin-lead at Corfin Industries and uses only tin-lead solder.

    • 0 avatar
      Sugarbrie

      Lots of stuff works in the lab in theory, but not in real life.

    • 0 avatar
      LoveToDrive

      Brilliant! Thanks for a great read. I viewed a show on TV that discussed the tin whiskers issue and it floored me. And the scientific community has been aware of this for many decades!

      I looked at the circuit board you described but it is difficult to determine where it resides. I can only assume that it is located within the pedal assembly itself. The way it’s made, it looks like it could have come out of a food blender. I wonder how well it is sealed from moisture. Would epoxy sealing be over-the-top for something like this?

      It is unfortunate that there was an issue with the pedal assembly sticking. I am sure that it passed all government safety regulations (if there are any) but I really wonder how much testing goes into a part like this. I wouldn’t know if such a seemingly innocuous part is cycle tested to determine how long it will last before it ultimately fails.

      I watched a YouTube video presented by a Toyota dealer showing the actual pedal assembly repair procedure performed on a recalled vehicle. I was amazed to watch the service technician use a feeler gauge to check the clearance between two assembly components, then insert a shim to make up for this clearance. Next, while holding the assembly in his hand, he manually pumped it a few times and then reinstalled it. All I could think of at the time was “Three pumps and he’s done. Wow, that’s it?”

      I would have preferred to see each vehicle get a new (completely redesigned) pedal assembly installed rather than fixing an old one. Can Toyota guarantee that this fix will never become a problem?

      But hey, I can’t deny that manufacturing millions of new pedal assemblies would be a daunting operation. You won’t see me buying a 2010 Camry. 

      The fact is that ECU assemblies do fail but I would bet the consumer is never made aware of what caused the failure. Gee, could it be tin whiskers?

      According to an article I read, the author stated “…a crack in soldered joints in the ECU or an electrical short could contribute to the unintended stalling.” This was admitted by Toyota.

      This is an expensive device. Why is this happening?

      I would be interested to know if there is any “go” or “no-go” logic built into ECUs when a serious failure occurs. I have no idea how complex these systems are but I would suppose that having one of these go on you could make for a bad day, at the very least.

      This is just far fetched dreaming but perhaps someday automakers could make these systems fully redundant by implementing two ECUs. If one fails, the other can kick in and take over. Then, at least you can drive over to the dealer and have the faulty one replaced instead of the possibility of having to be towed there. And, like I said, these units do fail but I have no idea how often, so this may be a non issue.  
       
      I know you can’t make every system in a car redundant but this is a pretty significant one.   

      And, would it not be possible to make a pedal assembly that never, ever sticks? I don’t see why not.
       

  • avatar
    Tachyon

    More dead Camry drivers in Utah–  And, they’d even had their pedals and their mats fixed.
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101115/ap_on_bi_ge/us_runaway_camry
    There remains more to this story.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Okay Michael – let me see if I understand your point. I had a ’49 Chevy truck with the gas tank inside the cab. Scary, scary, scary. Loved the truck but it was a death trap. I drove it daily – all stock – for a long time. When did Chevy quit putting the gas tank in the cab? The early 1970s? And this is the reason you avoid GM in favor of Ford?
      Wasn’t the Ford denials about the Pinto in the 1970s too? Cheaper to pay the lawsuits than fix the car’s design which needed cheap armor between the rear axle and gas tank I heard in the end. What of the Explorer/Firestone debacle?
      I’m just saying if we are going to pick ancient history to support our choice in brands then we are going to have a hard time finding a good fault-free brand.
      And this is all moot if I missed some news that says GM is back to putting the gas tank inside the cab.

  • avatar

    Just like Chevy trucks were not an issue. I believe I even have an old copy laying around.  But putting the fuel tank behind the seat proved deadly for dozens of people and eventually was changed. Not that you heard it here?  Chevy trucks are great and no where else to put the tank I beleive was close to what you said.  So many advertising dollars at stake the truth about cars from the manufacturers side only right?  People probably died from this and toyota/lexus hid it with every thing they could find.  Sure they have modified the software and maybe they fixed it and maybe not!  They lied and covered up so why trust them now. Beside the quality has steadily decreased from my first toyota decades ago so I for one am playing it safe.  I traded mine in on a Ford.  And I will never venture into another Toyota (hired alot of ex GM managers) dealer.


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