Harrison Police Chief: Pilot Error Possible In Prius Case
Last week, Harrison Police Capt. Anthony Marraccini said he had no indication of driver error, after a 56 year old house keeper had driven her employer’s Prius into a wall. Wall and car were totaled. Airbags deployed, housekeeper was unharmed. Now, Marracini isn’t so sure anymore.
Yesterday, six Toyota technicians and two NHTSA inspectors descended on Harrison, NY, to inspect the Prius, which had been kept in a Harrison police impound. According to CNN, “two independent inspectors from a forensic technology company, hired by the Police Department, also were aiding the investigation.” There was no shortage of experts. Presence of congressional aides was not reported.
Toyota successfully downloaded data from the vehicle. After receiving their findings (which have not been made public), Capt. Anthony Marraccini said driver error “was a possibility,” the New York Post reports.
“The driver says the accelerator stuck,” reported NBC yesterday.
Without saying it out loud, Toyota intimates that all the housekeeper should have done is push the brakes.
Careful not to insult the customer, Toyota Motor Sales spokesman Wade Hoyt said: “in all of our hybrids, when you step on the brake pedal the engine automatically returns to idle, even if the accelerator pedal would be nailed to the floor.”
What about unintended acceleration? No data so far. But the New York Post headlines its report “ Doubts accelerate over 2nd runaway-Prius story.”
Cue comments about single event upsets, tin whiskers, and Toyota mucking with the data. With the NHTSA, two independent inspectors, and an embarrassed police chief watching, it would take a lot of guts to pull a fast one.
Update: The Wallstreet Journal is (a tad belatedly) on the story and writes:
“The preliminary results of an investigation of a Toyota Prius accident in Harrison, N.Y., suggest driver error may have been to blame for the crash, two people familiar with the matter said. Based on information retrieved from the vehicle’s onboard computer systems, preliminary findings found that there was no application of the brakes and the throttle was open, according to these people.”
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How many brains should it take? Folks just have to ask the right questions. Toyota with their cute little SMART teams can afford to go around the country acting so sure of themselves considering that currently they are controlling both the questions and the answers. NASA is coming on board and hopefully will have the stature to make things happen by simply pointing out that there need to be adequate “black boxes” on all new vehicles to keep track of all the “fly-by-wire” systems increasingly used to keep engine power, fuel economy and emissions control competitive. Especially considering that Stability Control Systems will be mandatory in two more years. “Safety Systems” such as ABS, Traction Control and Stability Control all depend on the same basic hardware items and are assumed to be good things but recent events have shown that potentially great harm as well as potentially great good can result. A lot of harm can slide under the radar in the general context of increasing overall safety, much of which might simply be due to over-zealous police activity anyway. Local police are under lots of pressure to keep their numbers up to justify continuing to receive big federal handouts. Lots of drivers have simply given up partying, at least while drinking, and are staying at home instead. The model for these “black box systems” is found in the airline industry, with latest models of jet transports recording over 700 channels of data at routinely twice/second, with the rate increased during periods of rapid change, for periods of 17-25 hours. These data are easily studied by third party computers and software. Car companies like Toyota would not have to be anywhere around. Toyota’s refusal to share data, claiming that there is only one “special computer” in the country capable of accessing this data is pathetic anyway. Toyota claims that they have never encountered any defects in their “electronics systems” and therefore they are confident that such defects do not exist and apparently this has played well enough with NHSTA but not with others. Toyota has tried to pass things off as being due to such things as gas pedal entrapment under floor mats or throttle stickiness which supposedly can be cured by inserting a magic metal shim. Then to make absolutely sure that they are covered, they install a “software fix” so that the applying the brake is sure to disengage the throttle if it depressed, while protesting that the brakes in the normal course of driving are strong enough to over-power the throttle every time anyway. Toyota has the position that they have never encountered UA (Unintended Acceleration) not due to (or at least explainable by) some simple mechanical factor as described. Many drivers report simultaneous UA and loss of brakes and this passed off by Toyota as driver error, with the driver mistakenly pressing down the gas pedal believing that he is pressing the brake pedal. UA with or without loss of brakes is supposedly rare but the figures are difficult to evaluate. There is the immediate problem of data collection and issues of self-reporting. Many drivers might not have recognized it for what it is, or simply failed to report it, thinking they would not be believed or fearing Toyota’s well rehearsed counter-attack on those reporting these defects. Many drivers experiencing such defects might be dead, having perished in single car accidents with the police declaring that they must have gone to sleep, or suffered from some medical condition, or merely been driving dangerously in the first place. NASA can stimulate the one study appropriate to study these things. Many drivers with vehicles supposedly repaired by Toyota report continuing problems with UA and loss of brakes. Thus we have a good population of vehicles to study, those reported to have a higher incidence of defects. Many of these vehicles should be fitted with adequate “black box” systems, collecting data from the large numbers of sensors and command modules already on board. For example if something suspicious happens the driver could harvest the data immediately by down-loading it to a laptop computer via a USB cable or by merely swapping out a data card such as are used in digital cameras, without disturbing the data remaining in a large data buffer on board. Web cams are dirt cheap and widely available. One pointed toward the driver’s feet and tied in with the other data on the “black box” would leave little room for disagreement about where the driver was pressing with his feet.