By on February 25, 2010

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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16 Comments on “Quote(s) Of The Day: Bookends Edition...”

  • avatar

    I’m still waiting for just one of these “experts” to get it right. I don’t care if the car has an undetected electrical problem, a floormat stuck under the pedal, or you were driving with a blowing ball in the footwell – the damn Toyotas with electric throttle control DO NOT not have software which limits engine torque when the brake and throttle are pressed simultaneously.

    Why don’t they have this software feature? I have no idea. Maybe they didn’t want cut engine power and alarm their oafish customers who drive an automatic “two-footed” (i.e. using their left foot to control the brake pedal and their right foot to control the gas pedal – often simultaneously). The solution is so simple: flash a software fix at the same time you shim the spring on the pedal assembly. All the inputs are there – heck, I’ll write the code for you.


    Very simple. NOW GET TO IT TOYOTA!! And no need to thank me, just fix the software (which, in turn, will stop these silly Congressional hearings and investigative news reports).

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      From the hearings, I gathered that Toyota is providing brake override to every ETC vehicle in their current fleet that is capable of accommodating the feature by means of a simple reflash.

      They estimated that would take care of 72% of the current fleet, and the remainder would require a hardware change. All new vehicles will have brake override this year.

      It didn’t appear to me that the honorables hit this issue very hard, however. Why? The Detroit 3 likely begged them not to do so, as that would put pressure on them to spend this money as well, to update their fleet. This won’t save them, I suspect, as the trial lawyers have successfully put blood in the water over SUA, and they aren’t fussy as to what species of prey they feed on.

    • 0 avatar

      Gilbert stated that quite strongly IIRC

  • avatar

    The root cause of the Saylor incident was the use of an improper unsecured floormat by a car dealer employee. It would be more appropriate for Congress to haul that CA Lexus dealer’s staff into a hearing and grill them on why they laid something big and heavy in the driver’s floorwell, not complying with the procedures in the owner’s manual in the car’s glovebox. The electronic throttle control is a red herring – it could have been a mechanical one and the mat still would have jammed the throttle open. It seems odd that Toyoda would take the high road and accept blame for a dealer screw-up.

    The same irrelevance of electronic controls applies to the CTS sticky pedal issue: Even if a sticky CTS pedal was connected to a mechanical throttle cable, the engine would be stuck at wide-open-throttle.

    This throttle gremlin stuff is getting silly. I will concede, though, that the gated shifter on the ES350 is poorly designed, as when in the “Sport” mode pushing it forward will not select Neutral, but will select “+ gear”, even though (1) “N” is printed so close to “+” on the shifter bezel it could appear to someone unfamiliar with the car that you can push forward from S to Neutral; and, (2) it’s easy to forget it’s in “S” not “D” and get confused when trying to push forward to “N” unsuccessfully.

    Regarding a feature to cut engine speed if brakes are pressed: While a good feature, countless other cars do not have this feature, so it’s inappropriate to consider its absence a failure on Toyota’s part without considering it a failure on the part of the other carmakers.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      “It would be more appropriate for Congress to haul that CA Lexus dealer’s staff into a hearing and grill them on why they laid something big and heavy in the driver’s floorwell, not complying with the procedures in the owner’s manual in the car’s glovebox.”


      I actually came away from this with a small measure of respect for Toyota. They didn’t throw their dealers under the bus, and they didn’t throw their supplier, CTS, under the bus. This is an excellent practice, and one the Ford family forgot when they engaged in the Firestone fiasco. All of Billy’s yammering about “my name is on the car” is BS, because he didn’t walk the walk, as Toyoda-san did here.

      A robust enterprise cannot dis their partners, and must take their whipping all on their own. You can argue and even sue behind closed doors, but bringing the dirty laundry into the public arena is a huge blunder.

    • 0 avatar

      The Firestone/Ford problem was very obvious to those that payed attention in that the tires were blowing out at highway speed and they were all Firestone tires. Ford tried to work with Firestone behind the scenes to step up to the cost of replacing Firestone’s defective tires, but Firestone refused. Only then did Ford enter into a public dispute with their supplier.

      Ford’s name may have been on the back of the Explorers, but Firestone’s name was very clearly on all four tires, including the blown one.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      The Firestone tires were on Ford vehicles, correct, and were designed to Ford spec. Insuring that they are manufactured to that Ford spec is at least a shared responsibility, with Ford being one of the responsible parties, and the most important one, ultimately. They forgot this simple fact. They failed.

      Secondly, that Ranger/Explorer platform was inherently unstable, and anybody who drove that platform for years knows this full well. That’s why the new Explorer was so remarkably evolved when it came out. The old one was a flip-over hazard, and they knew it.

      Third, driver error was involved in this issue as well. Run your tires low, at high speed, for extended periods, in high ambient temperature conditions, and then jam on the brakes when the tire blows due to heat build up, and you have a case study for flip-over, and the Explorer platform exacerbates the probability for this.

      So, like Toyota’s issues here, there is much overlap of responsibility in terms of drivers, suppliers and the OEM. Toyota handled this overlap with class, and business common sense. Billy threw somebody else under the bus, and was too stupid to understand he went under the bus right along with his supplier.

  • avatar

    “eminently logical explanations (like a combination of pedal obstruction, sticking pedals, and human error) are as obvious as they can be.”

    How can you say this despite the testimony of the Toyota owner who had this happen to his car five times, with no floor mat or sticky accelerator problems, and drove it into his Toyota dealer with the engine still racing?

    Each of the stories adds a bit more to the credibility of the 2000+ stories indicating that there is a likely fault in the Toyotas that cannot be explained by mats, pedals, or operator error.

    To deny this shows only a prejudice towards trusting Toyota at all cost.

    I obviously have a different view of the hearings. I have now asked my family members to avoid riding in any Toyotas (taxis etc.) and advised them what to tell the operator if they are in one that has a problem.

  • avatar
    Brian P

    ^ The story above also indicates that it’s possible to control these cars by shifting to neutral … something that quite a few people seem to not have done (no matter what it is that they claim)

    • 0 avatar

      On some Toyotas, neutral is not all that easy to find.

      Also, under full power, some transmissions gears engage too strongly, requiring a break in the power to release. In that situation, if you can get it slowed enough where it wants to down shift, it may try and instead of downshifting, hit neutral like the shift left lever has been requesting for the past mile.

  • avatar

    Each of the pedal sensors has three wires. Short any of these wires between sensors and a fault is NOT detected. Professor Toyota chooses his words very carefully to steer around this defect.

    Further, short one of the power wires to the signal and the trottle goes full open, again without an error code. Professor Toyota also steers around this defect.

    Moisture (condensing humidity) in the pedal assembly sensors or any of the terminal blocks will produce such shorts.

    Several have posted fixes to Toyota’s seemingly inferior design.

    Toyota tested the above and found it to be true. Instead of admitting they found a potential source of the problem, they labeled it “sabotage”. Hubris is alive and well at Toyota.

  • avatar

    Toyota itself had admitted that the SUA problems do not all seem to be solved with the mats and sticky pedals. This article seems to have missed that part.

    I also think that we don’t have all of the information regarding this. One guy drove his car back to the dealer shifting into neutral. Another couldn’t get the car into neutral.

    Finally, the driver not responding to the vehicle defect, IMHO, is far less an issue that the vehicle have the defect itself.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      The Lexus at least had ABS, which does monitor the driver’s brake command and will apply and release the brakes if a wheel skid is indicated.

      Some Lexus models hide neutral in the shift pattern that can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look for it. “Sport” mode is not very helpful at 120mph. If you do manage to find it, it may take a while for the transmission gears to disengage to allow it to shift from Drive to neutral.

      If the pedal is mashed against the floor, there is no room to get your foot under it. Because of the driver’s seating positon, the right front passenger will need to unbuckle and reach down in there to pull it up.

      Some Toyota electric shutdowns are not three seconds but 3.3 seconds. Press and hold while your life flashes before you.

      You get one shot at the brakes. Hit them as hard as you can right off the bat and stay on them as hard as you can. Go lightly just to keep the speed from climbing and you’ve used your one attempt.

      Reserve blaming the driver without a solid understanding of how the vehicle is defeating the driver’s “normal” knowledge, understanding of the situation, and expected attempts at a correction.

      In Brief:
      1. Shift to netural.
      2. Brake normally.
      3. Pull off the road.
      4. Shut off the engine.
      5. Call the dealer or a tow truck. NO DRIVING IT.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

  • avatar

    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.

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