By on July 1, 2010

Pre-recall, Toyota was the company to emulate. It was very profitable, its business and production model was the envy of the world (with Lexus-owning Alan Mulally praising it) and it had an iron grip on quality and reliability (even though Honda could have had that title). Then came “acceler-gate”. Customers were petrified their Toyotas would creep out of their garages and run them down in the middle of the night. The government held numerous show trials senate hearings to give the illusion that it was protecting the American people from the nasty foreigners. Only an outcast few questioned the fact that the hearings were conducted by an entity which held significant stakes in two of Toyota’s competitors. If you think about it, is like going to trial on a murder charge and the judge and jury are made up of members of the victim’s family. Yes, it looked like Toyota was down and out. Then, something amazing happened. The ABC News’ “story” on Toyota acceleration was found to be a fake. Customers’ accounts of Toyotas going wild were exposed as lies and some countries stuck by Toyota. So after this roller-coaster ride, was else could happen? Well…

The Wall Street Journal reports members of congress, consumer advocates and product-liability lawyers have continually suggested that engine electronics could be the source of the Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA). There’s just one problem with that hypothesis. The NHTSA is having trouble finding any electrical gremlins with Toyota vehicles.

To assist in their ghostbusting search, NHTSA recruited the help of the most august body of scienctif knowledge, the National Academy of Sciences. The NHTSA needs help- “We have not actually been able to find a defect of electronic-throttle-control systems in Toyota vehicles” said Dan Smith of the NHTSA to the assembled panel of scientists. As far as Mr Smith can see, there’s only two causes of SUA, floor-mat entrapment of the pedals (which we already knew about) and accelerator pedal which are slow to idle (which was fixed by the “shim”). Mr Smith didn’t rule out electrical gremlins (smart move) and said that the investigations are ongoing (until people forget they were barking up the wrong tree, though he may not have said that part). To add further insult to Toyota’s injury, Roger Saul, who also works for the NHTSA, told the panel of the National Academy of Sciences that since Toyota’s first recall in October 2009, they received complaints of 64 crashes involving 78 deaths. How many could possibly be Toyota’s fault? “Regulators have been able to verify that only one of those incidents was caused by a vehicle defect,” Saul said. Someone send Saul to Plum Island! What we’ve got here is a serious case of highly contagious foot in mouth disease. Or should he be telling the truth?

NHTSA Chief David Strickland also told the panel that unintended acceleration is a problem that affects all major car manufacturers. Really, Mr Strickland? I could have told you that. What you can tell me, is when the NHTSA will launch an investigation into all major car manufacturers.

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24 Comments on “Toyota: Perplexed NHTSA Calls On The National Academy Of Science...”

  • avatar
    Tricky Dicky

    It doesn’t seem so long ago that another American government agency had to give up looking for something that they were absolutely sure they would find. They assured the public that they must be there, scared everyone in the process. Who would have thought that Toyota vehicles could be responsible for more deaths than Saddam’s WMD stockpiles!! :-O

    I understand that they even have a team of NASA scientists ripping up the place, trying to find those pesky electronic throttle gremlins. End result will probably be a sticker on your Camry’s steering wheel saying “This vehicle is not intended for space exploration”. Good job NHTSA.

  • avatar

    How about:

    “WARNING! Tin whiskers may be closer than they appear”

  • avatar

    There are roughly three broad categories here:
    1. The fact that Toyota safety defects that did occur, i.e. the mat-entrapment, the pedal-return issue, the hybrid braking defect, steering link fracture issue, and
    2. Defects aledged to have occurred, and
    3. Root causes related to defect categories 1 & 2, which need further investigation to be ruled out.

    There is the fact that Toyota had a) bad design and weak design verification (ca. Cat. 1)

    Then there is the issue of Toyota’s behaviour vis-a-vis timely reporting of suspected issues (5 days under US law) and pro-active dealing-with of items in cat. 1 above. Even later, this was blamed on “internal communications problems” (in a highly-centralized organization, staffed with Japanese nationals forming the backbone of that organization, all reporting issues back to a central head of quality who decided how an issue would be handled – what doesn’t fit here?).

    Then there is the issue of Toyota’s behaviour dealing with unconfirmed issues (“actively letting the sleeping dog sleep approach), like limiting the amount of diagnostic equipment available in the US to support post-crash analysis, only making that equipment and technician available under court-order (or significant bad PR pressure).

    The foregoing had to do with issues internal to Toyota.

    Then there are the issues external to Toyota, the individual manipulators, public opinion, goverment involvement, etc.

    Individual Manipulators are the inevitable issue of (call it whatever you want) people who confuse, imagine, manufacture, lie about issues with their vehicle to hide behind a safety issue that really had nothing to do with their particular unit.

    Public Opinion and goverment intervention and investigation were ignited by the reports in the news and these flames were fanned by Toyota’s own incompetence in handling their safety defects in the most responsible and professional way possible (and reporting them according to law), and, after failing to do this, their gross incompetence in dealing with the PR mess.

    – This mess was largely started by Toyota;
    – External events occurring subsequently, are more-or-less predictable and likely to happen to any OEM in a similar situation;
    – Toyota’s inability to deal with the external events increased the intensity of the issue, and the negative focus on the company;
    – Had Toyota just dealt with some of these topics, had it dealt with all of them as required by law, not so damaged its credibility in the eyes of the government, the PR mess would not have occurred, been give life and legs, and would not have led to requiring an in-depth investigation into even esoteric potential root causes.

    It is inappropriate to leverage the presence of the manipulators, the show-men, goverment-ownership of GM & CG, and/or other OEM’s problems to put perspective on the Toyota issue, because it is a throw the baby out with the bath-water approach. For even if you throw out all of these (the water), there still remain hard facts (the baby) that Toyota had numerous defects, and a big organizational problems, which at worst covered them up, and at best dealt with them incompetently, and serially broke the 5-day reporting law.

    • 0 avatar

      Well said Robert.

    • 0 avatar

      Toyota’s inability to deal with the external events increased the intensity of the issue, and the negative focus on the company

      I will agree with you, save for this point. I don’t think there was a way for Toyota to effectively deal with this issue, save for flagging it severals years prior**. It’s not possible, heck, it’s not even a good idea, to admit fault in as litigious a society as the US, partially because you’d open yourself up not just to ambulance-chasers, but to due-diligence suits from shareholders for premature exposition. The other choice, and probably the one that looked most pragmatic, was to continue to run interference until they were confident of the cause.

      What Toyota had was an unverifiable, difficult-to-duplicate condition that was likely caused by mat entrapment in most instances but fed into people’s worst fears about their car and was meat for the worst kind of showboating and scaremongering.

      It’s interesting because the law isn’t really the sticking point here. Even had they stuck to the law, they’d still be pilloried by people who insist on absolute certainties and whom “know” an there’s a ghost in the machine. It’s a disconnect between the (pardon my French) batshit-insane requirements of law and the limitations of technology, and, from my experience, technology never wins in the courtroom.

      I’ve been behind a similar eight-ball, though thankfully not where lives are on the line. It’s like responding the to question “So, when did you stop beating your dog?”

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with your analysis in general. Toyota is not street smart.

      In Canada, a manufacturer has to issue a recall when they discover a safety problem. Toyota informed Transport Canada of a “possible” problem with the Venza floormat in September last year. They were then advised by DOT to fix the problem on Oct2/09.

      They vacillated for 11 weeks, until the engineering brains trust in Japan said: “Gee, yes there is a problem we should fix”. At our parliamentary hearings, the Prez of Toyota Canada said he couldn’t authorize a fix until Japan agreed. Until they do, no problem exists in the Toyota bureaucratic mind.

      The Members of Parliament told the Canadian Prez off in no uncertain terms. Under our law, once Toyota is advised to issue a recall, there is no time lag allowed. Canada couldn’t care less about Toyota Japan HQ. If you sell a car here, it’s up to the seller to get moving AT ONCE. So Toyota Canada may face criminal charges. Plus, the law is likely to be amended to make it 100% clear that delays will not be tolerated while foreigners or anyone else ponders the problem. Since the most pissed off MP was a government member, I expect the law to change fairly soon. He sourly stopped questioning when he kept getting answers to questions he didn’t ask. Bad, bad performance by Toyota Canada.

      Toyota’s over-centralization is likely going to cost them dearly. They don’t seem to have a clue about social mores or laws in countries outside Japan, where apparently a wink and a nod is a practice that industry and government collude on. Think Mitsubishi.

      That said, the new harsher laws in the US and soon Canada, may make Toyota even more secretive than they are at present — but if they get caught again in either the US or Canada, the s**t will surely hit the fan in a really big way. Time to get re-organizing, Toyota!

      BTW, other Toyota floormats than the one in the Venza are not implicated in Canada, unlike the USA case. The reason: the mat is entirely different and very stiff making it hard to wrinkle and jam the accelerator.

  • avatar

    Well said, Robert. TTAC, how about reporting on the latest Toyota recall??? Faulty engines. Or, maybe their fix for the UI?

    • 0 avatar

      If I believe correctly, TTAC’s policy is not to cover recalls unless they become a phenom like the Toyota UA did. Otherwise, as recalls of some sort happen all the time, this would be nothing more than a recall site, leaving less room for auto related articles of sex and bacon.

      As far as the fixes, I think they were covered here in detail for the pedal issues. Funny how possessed Toyota stories have disappeared after the recall fixes of the pedals and floormats. If there were electronic gremlins, where are they now?

      A witch hunt is a witch hunt…..this one just wasted a lot of taxpayer money.

    • 0 avatar

      I would personally prefer to keep recalls off of TTAC.

      If you want to see why, have a look at how quickly (and shamefully) the discussions at Autoblog go off the rails.

  • avatar

    But, when you separate the wheat from the chaff, there may not be much fire from all that smoke. As Carquestion has posted, the database that NHTSA has been using for the basis of ALL of these charges is badly flawed. How many real instances have occured? How many deaths? Can you pinpoint a consistent problem at these instances?

    I certainly can see Toyota ignoring all this if you have worldwide reporting of millions of units, using the same components and tech, and not seeing the trend anywhere else. 5 day reporting be damned. As this thing has dragged on it certainly looks like another form of trade war, pumped up by hysteria and sensationalism.

    • 0 avatar

      What you say makes no sense if one takes into account how Toyota recalled vehicles in some markets to replace identically defective components in identical MY vehicles years before doing the same thing in other markets.

  • avatar

    When a vehicle has “pedal mis-application” at a rate that is 24 times demographically similar drivers and vehicles, the initial response was “It must the drivers!”. It took forever for the next question “What is ensnaring so many drivers?” to be asked. It seems pedals that are less than 2-1/2 inches apart and less than 2 inches difference in height promote and encourage driver error.

    Toyota may claim a robust error-checking design but using a parallel witness signal for a critical signal would get tossed out by a first-year electrical control engineer. Compounding the uneasiness of Toyota’s selection of the error-checking design is the excessively wide range of values the witness signal can be without triggering a fault.

    It took very little for the good professor to show that a short circuit having a resistance value within a certain range of values would defeat the error checking then throw a full-throttle command. Vehicles not using a parallel witness signal are immune to this fault. Add brake-override logic and it’s a one-two punch to the problem. Some vehicles use this design; lets hope more get it.

    • 0 avatar

      Except that there’s no evidence whatsoever that the good professor’s highly contrived apparatus has ever been spontaneously replicated in an accelerator pedal in the field.

    • 0 avatar

      You still believe that fraud?

      I could build you a box that defeats a non-parallel signal just as easily.

    • 0 avatar

      When a vehicle has “pedal mis-application” at a rate that is 24 times demographically similar drivers and vehicles

      The so called “24 times” is not a proven fact.

      24 times the number of complaint isn’t the same a 24 times the problem actually happening. Could just be a very bored Bertel using Ctrl-V.

    • 0 avatar

      Could just be a very bored Bertel using Ctrl-V.

      Could be (Well, not Bertel, as he undoubtedly has better things to do) but if we look at the number of complaints before 8/29/09 -when the CHP officer couldn’t control his Lexus and the publicity really got rolling- Toyota still had complaints more than double their market share.

      While most manufacturers have some complaints, some, such as GM, had a % well below their market share.

      While I’d be interested to know if the NHTSA can check the ISPs of complainants, no mention of multiple complaints from single computers has been alleged.

      My inclination is to believe that people filling in the electronic form prior to 8/09 probably thought (notice I said thought) they experienced SUA not caused by themselves. Most people have better things to do than file false reports with NHTSA. (But by all means, let’s check the ISPs)

      Then of course we have the NJ man who experienced SUA and got to the dealer by shifting between N and D while holding the brake with his foot. Upon arrival at the dealer, he put the car in P, and left the engine running. The dealer verified that the engine raced w/o input from the driver (e.g. no pedal mis-app) and that floor mats were not the problem. The dealer also verified the brakes were overheated.

      There is no reason to rush to the “Audi 5K” conclusion.

    • 0 avatar

      You still believe that fraud? I could build you a box that defeats a non-parallel signal just as easily.

      Buzzzzzzzt. Sorry, no boxes allowed. You have to work with the existing hardware.

      I’m skeptical that defeating a non-parallel witness signal can be done “just as easily”. If the witness signal is both non-parallel and non-linear (like a truly robust signal would be), anything short of introducing a rogue PLC would trigger a fault. Recall that the professor had yet to successfully hack the Buick LA Crosse throttle signal which reportedly uses a non-parallel witness signal.

      Defeating the Toyota design was done by shorting the power to the witness signal through a resistance. There is not one shred of false science involved in this. He spotted the simplistic design and showed how easily it could be defeated. No more and no less. A small but vocal minority whined about the resistance value and the odds it was the root cause of the Toyota SUA but his work showing the design is easily defeated was and still is solid.

    • 0 avatar

      he showed it took a specific resistance to lower the output voltage of one circuit so that it was precisely parallel to the output voltage of the other circuit… and a requirement is that the short specifically touch only those two circuits and none of the dozen others close to them on the board. Which would be the equivalent of your keyboard shorting itself to type out an expletive every time you hit the “F” key.

    • 0 avatar

      Not a single resistance value, but a range of 175 to 425 Ohms (if I recall correctly) that is breathtakingly wide for its intended function.

      Shorting adjacent traces (the power and witness are alleged to be adjacent on the circuit board) is not uncommon and can have many causes including manufacturing defect, metallic debris, moisture, “Tin whiskers”, etc. Same with the (also alleged adjacent) signal trace.

      The significance of this observation can be debated. It is not unrealistic to believe a certain but unknown number of the 2 million (?) vehicles using this design were shipped with the error-detection defeated. If any of these subsequently experience a short between any of these circuits, the fault will not be detected or logged and the throttle pedal will issue a full-throttle command to the ECN, regardless of the pedal position.

      The first short could go undetected for the life of the vehicle as there is no discernable change in vehicle operation. The second short, should it happen, is the Gotcha: the gas goes to full throttle and stays there. These you see on the evening news (along with the floormat-stuck pedals and fakers).

      A first year electronic controls engineer could look at the normal Toyota signal and witness traces, turn around and look you in the eye and tell you exactly what to expect if you built and tested this circuit.

      It did not take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Professor Gilbert is not a rocket scientist. He was simply the first guy to take the time to demonstrate in physical terms the deficiencies of the design. It is not difficult imagining it happening in the real world, say 20-35 times this past 7 years.

  • avatar

    Of course, the data they’re working with is flawed. Anyone who has more than a passing degree of competency with statistics would see if they ever tried publishing in a peer reviewed journal with these numbers, they’d be laughed at.

    But enough about that, let’s do anecdotes. My mother, in the past 13 years, has been on the receiving end of THREE (of what could be called) SUA incidents. She owns a business with a large storefront flanked by a plus sized women’s store on one side and a hair salon on the other. Three times in the past 13 years, drivers have managed to jump the concrete curb stop, over the curb, onto the sidewalk and into the glass storefront.

    Of those three times, only one was reported to an insurance company. Once, the girl driving the car was driving without a license and her mother offered to pay with cash. The second, the driver didn’t want to report, so she paid in cash as well. Third, they worked through the insurance system, aka, was the only one that “really happened.” Of the three, once was a person who was trying to brake but got confused and hit the accelerator. The other two were people trying to back out of the parking spot in the wrong gear.

    My mother changed her sitting spot after the second incident.

  • avatar
    Sandy A

    Isn’t interesting that the most of the news media, including this site, seems to have missed the most interesting result of this conference on 6/30.

    It turns out that Prof. Hubing was able to replicate Prof. Gilbert’s results, and up him one. Instead of requiring two faults (which don’t have to be simultaneous), Prof. Hubing showed that only a single fault is needed to fool the ETC and cause an open throttle condition. I can’t find his actual NHSTA presentation online. Does anyone know where we can get it? However, here is a presentation that goes over the basics:


    P.S. Does anyone know if there is a video of the NHTSA/NASA/NAS conference?

  • avatar

    The problem with the tin whiskers… nobody has yet produced any physical eviddence to prove that this was happening, and many of the cars involved in these SUA cases acted normally afterwards, with no physical changes to the wiring.

    For the steady change in voltage required for the signals to be rendered parallel, you’d have to have a pretty stable short. Hasn’t been seen yet.

    That last one is interesting… any diagrams or illustrations?

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