Quote(s) Of The Day: Bookends Edition

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

QOTD is a fairly irregular exercise for us, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t dust it off for today’s marathon hearings before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Needless to say, the ten-ish hour affair offered too rich a bounty of choice quotes to properly choose just one. And so we have two: the first and one of the last quotes of the day’s proceedings. The day opened with the following words from Chairman Edolphus Towns:

Good morning. I thank you all for being here. It is hard to imagine the horror of the event that took the lives of an entire family near San Diego, California on August the 28th, 2009. California highway patrolman, Mark Saylor, his wife, their 13 yr old daughter, and Mrs Saylor’s brother, Chris, were driving in a Toyota Lexus, a loaner car that the Toyota dealer provided while their car was being repaired. As they drove along the highway, suddenly the car… accelerating [sic] rapidly, he stood on the brakes, but nothing happened. No matter what he did, he could not stop the car from flying down the road, faster and faster. As this car reached top speed in just seconds, it was all he could do just to kep it under control. In a frantic call to 911, his brother-in-law, Chris, reported the gas pedal was stuck, the brakes did not work, and they were barreling down on an intersection. He yelled over the phone “hold one, hold on, hold on and pray. And those were his last words.”

Towns’statement was the perfect kick-off for the ten hours that followed. Though the hearing was long and diverse (and rest assured, more coverage is coming), the general thrust of the exercise was to blame Toyota for scenarios like the Saylor’s, which would have required multiple system failures (not to mention driver negligence) to inevitably result in the narrative so hauntingly retold by Rep. Towns. And consistent with the GIGO [garbage in, garbage out] paradigm, the committee seemed no closer to the truth by the time Dennis Kucinich wrapped up the proceedings with the following bon mot:

Toyota has blinders on about the throttle control unit issue… I don’t know if it’s liability or if there’s a link to a coverup, but there’s a piece of the puzzle missing… I know we’ve put in a long day, but if there’s a piece missing, you don’t stop asking questions.

Yesterday’s hearings were rife with a metaphor, first introduced by the “expert witness” Sean Kane, that “we have a bookend with Dr Gilbert’s work and we have a bookend with consumer complaints.” In short, there are myriad explanations for unintended acceleration, but only an undetectable electronic problem (as suggested by Dr Gilbert’s research) can explain the scenarios described by complaints of unintended acceleration.

Similarly, these two quotes form convenient bookends to the last two days of congressional hearings. On the one hand, the emotional appeal in the form of an inexplicable narrative. On the other, the sense of anger and frustration at congress’s inability to make sense of these mystifying yet troubling anecdotes, with the less than subtle implication that Toyota is hiding something from the bright light of the committee’s investigations. In both cases, the bookends are are necessary only because of the profound lack of rational explanations for many of the stories of sudden unintended acceleration. And in both cases, they represent individuals striving for complex, yet satisfying explanations, when less gratifying but eminently logical explanations (like a combination of pedal obstruction, sticking pedals, and human error) are as obvious as they can be.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s response to these rumors in the corridors of power (see the video above) is straightforward and impressively nerdy. What the innuendo-mongerers in congress fail to understand is that if they simply chided Toyota for its slowness to react to customer complaints and poor global communication, they’d still be seen as defenders of their constituents’ safety, and rightly so. By following Mr Kane’s pied piping of possible yet untraceable electronic gremlins, they’ve run the risk of turning a teachable moment into a recreation of the Audi 5000 frenzy. Which would make for a pair of interesting bookends to the history of unintended acceleration.

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4 of 16 comments
  • Kendahl Kendahl on Feb 25, 2010

    As far as I know, the brakes in the California highway patrolman's Lexus are entirely hydraulic. Therefore, they cannot be affected by software logic errors or electrical problems. Furthermore, the brakes are always stronger than the engine. If you shove hard on the brake pedal and don't let up, the car WILL stop even if the transmission remains in gear and the engine is screaming at full throttle. A highway patrolman should be an expert driver capable of handling emergencies. Partly this is so that he can drive well himself and partly it is so that he can competently evaluate civilians' driving in order to write tickets. This incident was caused by driver failure as much as by mechanical failure. I hope the California Highway Patrol learns from it and improves its driver training program.

    • See 1 previous
    • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Feb 07, 2011

      The patrolman's situation continues to really, really bother me. I worry that he might have made choices to try to stop the car because he thought he could handle it and get the car to stop. Why not simply TRASH the transmission? Get it into neutral. Doesn't work? Shift it down. Doesn't work? Put the damn thing in park and let it destroy itself. As a person who has driven on the Italian Autostrada I am aware that the brakes ought to be able to stop the car but once you get them hot from "trying" to stop the car, you have no brakes. Period. The only way to stop a car like that going that fast is to stop the car hard once b/c there won't be any second chances until the brakes cool substantially. My cars were capable of stopping once, and the second time took WAY more distance and time b/c the brakes were so hot. i think the modern fascination with cars that have an electronic shifter, an electronic ignition switch and other gadgets built in that disconnect the driver from the driving experience is a dangerous one. I REQUIRE a manual transmission so I have a clutch to disconnect the engine from the wheels and I have no desire to have keyless ignition.

  • CopperCountry CopperCountry on Feb 25, 2010

    I agree that not all manufacturers have software which allows the brake signal to override the throttle input - but they should. There's absolutely no reason not to do it (other than offending the oafs who drive with two feet, which I mentioned earlier). Since the inputs are all there, and it certainly makes the car safer in the event of any mishap, I just don't see the reason not to add a few lines of code. I know that GM and Chrysler have had a brake override since they first introduced electronic throttles (o.k., so that's only one major manufacturer). But still, since there's no rational reason to allow the throttle signal priority over the brake, why not use the tools in your possession to do something about it. The argument that "they never had brake override when throttles had cables" doesn't fly either. Just because they didn't have them doesn't mean they wouldn't have been a good idea, if feasible. Brake override software in the electronic throttle control era is easy, costs almost nothing, and makes the car much safer in the event of a stuck pedal, electrical malfunction, misplaced feet, or any other scenario yet to be imagined. All you Best & Brightest out there with non-Toyota cars that equipped with electronic throttles: try applying the brake and throttle at the same time (with the car moving) and see what happens. I'd bet that most of them limit engine torque at some point. And finally, I agree that stopping a car with the throttle wide-open is possible, but the window to do so is not very long. If the brakes get too hot, fluid inside the caliper boils, and you lose braking force. I don't think your average passenger car has a lot of headroom for overheating the brakes, so you may be able to haul it to a stop (if you react quickly for forcefully in applying the brake), but if try to just slow it down for a while, the brakes will cook and it's game over (unless you have the presence of mind to turn the ignition off or put it in neutral). When a person is panicking, the best thing that can happen is to have the engine control software react quickly and reduce engine power.

  • Norman Stansfield This is what you get when you run races to keep the cars bunched together for more excitement. F1 doesn't seem to have this problem after the first few laps.
  • SCE to AUX Too many cars = more wrecks. With today's speeds on essentially the same old track, starting with half the cars could reduce the congestion at the end. Or maybe it would increase the problem because the herd wouldn't thin early on.I say no overtime - finish at 500 miles and no more.
  • Garagezone There was an Indy 500 yesterday? Hmmmm...
  • Mark Morrison Sad it just reminded me how good TTAC once was … required daily reading.