By on February 8, 2011

[Ed: With today’s news of NHTSA’s investigation results, we thought we’d look back at TTAC’s coverage of the Toyota Unintended Acceleration scandal.]

The Toyota Unintended Acceleration Scandal of 2010 was a curious beastie of a media phenomenon. Shortly after I started writing for TTAC, NHTSA opened an investigation into Toyota Tacomas because, as the Center for Auto Safety’s Clarence Ditlow put it,

If there were truly human error, there would be a proportional distribution across models. It’s very difficult to explain how some makes and models have higher numbers of complaints than others absent some flaw in the vehicle.

Fresh as I was to writing about the world of cars, I was sure I had the story dead to rights. I had seen this movie before, when my father told me his epic Parnelli Jones Unintended Acceleration story. Dad had even killed the the family pickup’s engine at a traffic light to prove it… and I knew how bad the brakes in the old Ford were (but that’s another story). Absent a better explanation than mere statistical likelihood, I knew there was only one cause for this problem. With a level of confidence that seems totally at odds with subsequent events, I concluded by suggesting that

the Detroit Free Press and Motor Trend blog, are trying to resuscitate the [Audi 5000] media frenzy, only this time Toyota’s to blame for people mistaking the accelerator for their brake pedal… If a TTAC reader out there has a Tacoma, perhaps they would do us the honor of standing on the brakes while mashing the accelerator for a few seconds. This should prove fairly simply that “unintended acceleration” is possible only when you are not actually on the brakes.

It was that simple… wasn’t it?

What I hadn’t counted on back in early 2008, was that floormats and sticky pedals would emerge as possible causes of UA in Toyotas. Reports of runaway Toyotas continued to surface throughout 2008 and 2009, and nearly a year after taking on Ditlow’s statistics, TTAC logged its first story on possible “electronic” causes for UA in Toyotas. The now-defunct took up Ditlow’s statistical logic in April2009, and added the missing piece: a story that could not be logically explained.

On November 5, 2008, I was driving on a freeway in my 2008 Lexus ES350 with the cruise control on. I gave the car a little extra gas to pass another car and the car just took off. I tried to disengage the accelerator by trying to turn off the cruise control switch as well as tapping on the brake pedal, but it would not disengage. I tried to turn off the engine by pushing the keyless ignition button, but it would not turn off. I checked the floor to make sure that there wasn’t anything on the accelerator, and there wasn’t. I then put the car in neutral, but when I did this, the engine sounded as if it were going to explode, so I put it back in gear. By this time, I was going well over 100 mph. My only choice was to stand on the brakes. Within seconds, the car was in a cloud of smoke coming from the 4 wheels/brakes. The car began to slow as thankfully the brakes were stronger than the engine which was going at its maximum rpm’s. The car went over a mile before finally coming to a stop. I was then able to put the car in park and stop the engine. After a few moments, when I had calmed down a bit, I started the engine again and it immediately start racing at maximum rpm’s again, so I shut it off . . .

Before Toyota’s first floormat recall, the formula for the media firestorm that would erupt nearly a year later was already in place. First, statistics seemed to point to Toyota. Second, the power of narrative far surpassed the media’s mechanical knowledge. By the time Toyota finally blamed and recalled its floormats, it looked like the company was trying to blame a mundane floormat for a ghost in the machine.

With the powderkeg packed, the unintended acceleration scandal needed only a spark to ignite it. That spark was the fiery crash that killed an off-duty police officer and three family members near San Diego. Because the driver in that incident was a highway patrol officer, many refused to believe that he could have born any responsibility for the incident. Even after evidence surfaced that the car in the incident was a dealer loaner with incorrect floormats which, even with its pedal trapped, could be controlled, the Saylor crash remained proof positive for many that nobody, no matter how well trained, was safe from their Toyota if it decided to take off.

Weeks after the Saylor crash, Toyota recalled 3.8m floormats. Shortly after it announced it would be introducing brake override systems. Though, in retrospect, Toyota was probably scapegoating mats to keep from blaming customers, the story was already reaching a fever pitch. In the wake of the Saylor incident, even I began to hedge about the possibility of some kind of electronic problem causing UA. After all, cars were becoming increasingly electronics-dependent… weren’t we asking for some kind of inevitable techno-nightmare? Still, by the end of 2009, I thought the story had finally had its last hurrah. Of course I was wrong.

By the end of January, Toyota was recalling cars around the world, for sticky pedals made by its supplier, CTS. On February 1, the recall spread to the US. As TTAC explored the roots of Toyota’s decades-long trend towards decontenting, the first signs of saber-rattling from Washington were hitting the airwaves. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood may not have had the first idea about what was actually causing UA in Toyotas, but he definitely knew the political routine, and he laid into Toyota with gusto. Papers were leaked to the relevant congressional committees, and as tensions built in the leadup to congressional hearings, the story exploded in a riot of mass media confusion.

ABC News dumped fuel on the fire when notorious auto safety-baiter Brian Ross teamed up with Professor David Gilbert to produce a video suggesting that errors could be caused in Toyota’s engine control unit without registering error codes. Ross’s report was quickly criticized, and Toyota maintained that Gilbert’s test results had no bearing on real life. After all, the Southern Illinois professor had hard-wired ECUs to create his “ghost in the machine.” In the frenzy, everything from “tin whiskers” to cosmic rays were blamed for creating an untraceable, irreparable madness in Toyotas… eventhe nerd-god Steve Wozniak got in on the fun. TTAC’s own investigation, in which we stripped and analyzed both the recalled and replacement pedals was fascinating but inconclusive. By the time congressional hearings began on unintended acceleration in Toyotas, we were no closer to the truth than when the story started… if anything, the dizzying blur of media coverage made the certainty of early 2008 difficult to recreate.

Luckily, congress was on hand to bring back a sense of clarity to the issue. Not through the clear-eyed vision of our elected representatives though, but rather because of the very opposite. Both the House and Senate committee hearings were flailing disasters of mechanical misunderstanding, misleading testimony, grandstanding and general uselessness. Akio Toyoda was duly humiliated before the House Oversight Committee, before that august body settled into the defining moment of the entire scandal: a day-long hearing in which every hope for a secret hidden electronic gremlin was dashed upon the rocks of common sense. From the committee’s lying, lawyer-connected “expert witnesses“, to a failed attempt to skewer Toyota’s head of US operations, to its concluding meeting with Ray LaHood, April 24 brought every accusation against Toyota to the fore, and yet none managed to stick. By the end of the day’s “Comedy In Three Acts,” my belief that UA in Toyotas was primarily due to operator error was fully renewed. I concluded

Congress holds hearings like these to uncover shocking evidence and to impress its constituents with its dedication to their safety and well-being. Having been enticed into believing that sinister conspiracies exist in Toyota’s software code and the halls of the NHTSA, the House Energy Committee uncovered only one actionable solution to the ongoing scandal: greater funding for NHTSA’s investigative capabilities. Put differently, after hours of posturing congress finally met the enemy and he was them.

By the time Jim Sykes escalated the media hype a step further, when his Prius was caught being slowed by police cars on an interstate, the story was already over-ripe, and decaying from within. By the time the media learned that Sykes was hardly credible (never mind that his story was never credible), his 23-minute-long 911 call gave the story the reek of self-parody, and it collapsed on itself. Since then, we’ve received only regular updates from NHTSA with findings that point to driver error as the main cause of UA, capped by a report I summarized in a post titled Unintended Acceleration In Toyotas: The Ghost In The Data. Its conclusion:

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.

With confirmation of this conclusion coming from today’s release of the long-awaited NASA investigation findings, it seems that the chimera of “Unintended Acceleration” may well be sealed up back in the American unconscious, where it should lay dormant for at least a few more years. After all, as a mass-market brand, Toyota’s lessons should be better remembered than were Audi’s from decades earlier. And yet, I still worry that the connections -and lessons- from the Toyota UA scandal could slip away just as they did after the Audi scandal. Ironically, I feel I captured the real lesson of the scandal best outside of TTAC, when I wrote in a Reuters op-ed:

Just as motorists can never assume that their vehicle will always function perfectly, consumers should avoid being lulled into a false sense of security by an automaker’s reputation alone. Automobiles are complex machines manufactured by firms that must constantly test the cost-quality equation to stay competitive in a cutthroat industry. As long as this is the case, the market for automobiles will remain dynamic and cyclical: an arena with little room for the kind of unquestioning trust that Toyota has enjoyed for so many years. If there’s a lesson to Toyota’s tumble, it’s that easy assumptions aren’t enough to keep you safe on the road, or in the showroom.

A year on from the height of the scandal, I think that if we bring anything away from the experience, it should be this.

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32 Comments on “TTAC’s Toyota Recall Coverage: A Retrospective...”

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Well, it’s good to see a satisfactory conclusion to something that, at times, resembled a witch hunt.  I don’t recall the Audi problem having been brought to as crisp a resolution, at least not one that clearly concluded that the “runaway” Audis were not the result of some mechanical defect.  I believe there was some conclusion that there was an ergonomic issue with the placement of the brake and accelerator pedals.  Of course, the runaway Audi’s — at something like 140hp — were far less powerful than at least some of the “runaway Toyotas.”
    Ironically, back in the days of non-electronically controlled transmissions and engines (like the 1960s) I do recall some autobox cars having unintended acceleration.  I believe the cause was a bind in the mechanical linkage between the throttle and the transmission — which momentarily close the throttle during shifts — and then re-opened it to provide smoother shifting and avoid damage to the tranny.

    • 0 avatar

      The mechanical linkage that you are referring to between the engine and the transmssion was used to communicate throttle position to the transmission (such as on the Ford C6 for downshift purposes), not the other way around.

      GM did have UA issues in the late 1960s and there were lawsuits-o-plenty.  One common root-cause issue was the pillow-block rubber engine mounts that had no mechanical interlock to prevent separation of the halves in case of failure.  This, combined with high-horsepower V8s and a mechanical lever/pivot throttle linkage, was a recipe for UA disaster.  You mash the throttle, engine mount fails (or already had) and separates, allowing engine to rock/rotate within the engine compartment.  This then binded up the throttle linkage, holding the throttle open.

      As a result of all of this, you’ll notice that by the early 1970s, all american car makers had switched to fail-safe engine mount designs along with CABLE throttle linkages. 

      On another note, regarding UA and cruise control, GM’s cruise control system of the 70s and 80s used a redundant safety-off system:  in addition to killing power to the cruise module vacuum solenoid when the brake pedal or “OFF” switch was applied, the brake pedal also had a vacuum dump valve (complete with 3/8″ diameter vacuum hose through the firewall to the dashpot) that was in parallel with the solenoid valve, such that if one held down the brake pedal, there was no vacuum to the throttle dashpot even if the solenoid valve stuck or the electrical controls failed.  I believe this to be strong evidence that the UA events of the 1960s had a positive effect on systems design for years afterwards (that secondary system probably cost GM a few dollars per every car it was installed on, which is a LOT for a carmaker which made the cigarette lighter in the Chevette an optional accessory).

      Ford cruise control of the 1970-80s, however, had no such secondary safety system.  The cruise on my 1971 LTD had a nasty habit of not wanting to turn off unless you actually slowed the car down under 35mph or so, and that scared me away from using it.  Always exciting when the throttle pedal goes down all by itself after you let up on the brake pedal!  Even more exciting when you loan the car to a friend and forget to mention this tiny detail (sorry Jim!).

  • avatar

    Great summary of the story.  However, this conclusion:
    Just as motorists can never assume that their vehicle will always function perfectly, consumers should avoid being lulled into a false sense of security by an automaker’s reputation alone. Automobiles are complex machines manufactured by firms that must constantly test the cost-quality equation to stay competitive in a cutthroat industry. As long as this is the case, the market for automobiles will remain dynamic and cyclical: an arena with little room for the kind of unquestioning trust that Toyota has enjoyed for so many years. If there’s a lesson to Toyota’s tumble, it’s that easy assumptions aren’t enough to keep you safe on the road, or in the showroom.
    … rings of idealism.  Ambulance-chasing lawyers make a living convincing judges and juries that vehicles will always function perfectly, and that consumers should expect as much.  Companies with deep pockets make for great media play and golden cash settlements.

  • avatar

    I have never believed it.  It smacked of a manufactured liability lawsuit; hopefully for the people behind it, a nice, fat class-action lawsuit.
    Remember, too, this was shortly after Government Motors came to be.  That was probably not the driving force, but it took the NHTSA out of the “disinterested party” category.
    I’ve had intimate relations with about eight Toyotas; I can tell you for a fact, the factory floor mats are made in a way where they can in fact, slide forward to hook the accelerator.  The Tacoma I had had a hook through an eye in the floormat to help avoid the problem.
    Toyota was on top; they are a foreign company; the government was the new owner of GM; and trial lawyers rule the nation.  The stage was set for this kind of legal nonsense.

  • avatar

    I then put the car in neutral, but when I did this, the engine sounded as if it were going to explode, so I put it back in gear.

    Even if the engine had miraculously revved past the limiter and exploded, I’m sure Lexus would have been nice enough to put a new engine in under warranty.

  • avatar

    I wonder if the NewYork Times, ABC, Reuters and the rest will interview Sean Kane to get his take? Seems he had lots to say a year ago.

    One things for sure – Edmunds $1 million dollar prize was never winable was it? 

  • avatar

    Some us did bring up the 1980’s trumped-up Audi acceleration fiasco.
    But at the height of Toyo-accel-mania, few would listen.
    Shakes one’s confidence in the maturity of people at large.

  • avatar

    Well, we have the turmoil in Egypt and a lot of other interesting crises & controversies to keep us occupied right now. But if things get too dull, we may have to bring back UA.

  • avatar

    redmondjp: “GM did have UA issues in the late 1960s and there were lawsuits-o-plenty.  One common root-cause issue was the pillow-block rubber engine mounts that had no mechanical interlock to prevent separation of the halves in case of failure.  This, combined with high-horsepower V8s and a mechanical lever/pivot throttle linkage, was a recipe for UA disaster.  You mash the throttle, engine mount fails (or already had) and separates, allowing engine to rock/rotate within the engine compartment.  This then binded up the throttle linkage, holding the throttle open.”
    Exactly this happened to a group of us who operated a 1964 GMC Suburban with a 283 V8 and automatic transmission.  Eventually, after a minor accident caused by the jamming throttle we found out the problem and got it fixed.  But it could have killed someone.

  • avatar

    For god’s sake people drive mindlessly into the wrong side of the highway all the time and we have a hard time believing someone can mistake the accelerator for the brake!  Humans are idiots.

  • avatar

    My recollection with the Audi was that it was manufactured as primarily a manual transmission car in Germany, and had a small brake pedal (more the size of a clutch pedal) placed close to the accelerator pedal.  Americans, driving with automatics, and accustomed to wide brake pedals, easily missed the brake.  Of course the automatic transmission brake lockout was not yet in place, since it was a requirement that came out of the Audi events. So you could stand on the gas and shift into D.  Many of the Audi UA incidents occurred in garages.  Probably a good idea that they changed that.

  • avatar

    I was wrong, and I don’t mind admitting it.   I thought it was likely there were “ghosts in the machine” but I’m willing to take NASA’s word for it that there are no ghosts.
    I’m still troubled by several things;
    One, most auto enthusiasts (and auto bloggers)  seemed to have an answer early on, and that answer was “driver error”.    If you came to this conclusion a few years ago, you were right, but you were just guessing.    It matters, quite a lot, whether one is right by guessing or right after analyzing the facts.    IMO, the facts came in yesterday.
    Two, driver error is too broad.  It becomes a catch all.   Pedal placement, floor mats, and foot well design can all be contributing factors.   Dismissing everyone as an idiot does not help us deal with the factors that may contribute to SUA.   Many of us asked about pedal placement in Toyota’s.  TTAC largely ignored this.   TTAC did spend a lot of time on the pedals themselves, and that was some good investigative journalism.   A little more on ergonomics to go along with the mechanics might have been fruitful.
    Three, there is the case of the Avalon owner who drove to his dealer with wide open throttle and no floor mats.   The dealer’s mechanic confirmed that the engine was racing uncontrollably.  The dealer replaced the throttle body, accelerator, and sensors.   (Is it any wonder some of us thought there might be ghosts?)
    Instead of focusing on this verifiable case of SUA (where the driver had presence of mind to shift between drive and neutral to control the vehicle) most auto opinionators focused on the con-man Sykes, as if he were the embodiment of the problem.   The reason for the focus on Sykes was of course that minds had already been made up, rather than being left open.   If Sykes was a con it just goes to “prove” that SUA is all caused by driver error.
    Five, State Farm reported a spike in Toyota SUA years before the Saylor crash.  This predates media hype, and ambulance chasing.   If a brand has more incidents than other brands, there must be something more to it than driver error, which should be evenly distributed.
    Six, TTAC along with just about every other media outlet spent a lot of time blaming elderly drivers, while sidestepping the fact that Toyota is not an “elderly” brand.   More old people may have had pedal confusion than younger people, but if that were the answer, we’d expect to see this more often in “elderly” brands where the average ownership age is much higher.   We didn’t see that.
    Seven, the incidents of Toyota SUA were not confined to park and shop situations where pedal misapplication would explain running through the store window.   I’m willing to take driver error as the default explanation in these situations, but it’s almost impossible to believe pedal misapplication accounts for a car racing away on the highway.
    Lastly, it’s my opinion that the single most important lesson from this is that the shift quadrant on slushboxes needs to be changed.    I doubt most drivers know that an autobox can be shifted while the car is in motion – a driver training problem.  But, shifting from D to N also poses the problem of going a bit too far, shifting into R.   If a driver is already in trouble because of a stuck pedal, we don’t want to compound the problem by having him shift into R.   It would seem sensible to have another N all the way to the right, so that one shifts through the lower drive ranges to N w/o the danger of shifting into R.

    • 0 avatar

      Regarding your last point, my wife’s ’02 Solara still has the old school straight up and down floor shifter pattern.  I have experimented with shifting on the fly, and there is a gate to keep from shifting from N to R.  Starting with 1, you can shove the shifter up as fast as you want and it will stop in N.

    • 0 avatar

      Many of us who were attributing the vast majority of these SUA incidents to driver error were simply looking at the evidence and noting the similarities to the Audi SUA debacle. That’s not randomly guessing, that’s looking at the available evidence and making a reasonable deduction. Those who were saying that it was some ghost in the machine problem were doing the guessing. There may indeed be some ergonomic and demographic components to the Toyota SUA incidents but, except for the few cases of pedal entrapment, these do fall under the driver error category, just like it did in the Audi 5000. The dead giveaway on driver error is the failure of the brakes to stop the runaway cars. You have all these drivers who swear they were standing on the brake, and in any modern car the brakes will overpower the accelerator. To have a simultaneous runaway engine and momentary brake failure is just not believable. The case of the highway patrolman is particularly sad because if he had simply applied full braking immediately, he would have been able to come to a safe stop.

      There were only a handful of the high speed runaway SUA incidents, and apparently they were all due to pedal entrapment, pedal missapplication, or outright fraud, since NASA has ruled out electrical gremlins. They make much better headlines than people who simply hit things in parking garages, but they were a tiny minority of the incidents.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup 285EXP nails it.
      This was not a guess and was not hard to figure out from day one.  Compounding, concurring errors do not occur all at once without from time to time happening independently on  their own… Throttle opens, brakes fail, neutral no longer available, etc etc etc.  The internet should have been alive with Toyota complaints about brakes, or shifters, or start buttons, or idle problems… NOTHING… that is a BIG clue.
      Same with the whole “complicated software” red herring. While computer system can and do issue intermittent errors.. over a large enough population they become VERY prevalent, and obvious… we saw none of that either.
      Magical tin slivers, electromagnetic dreams and ghosts in the machine… When you have two explanations to a problem… One simple and logical and the other requires concurrent and almost magical things to occur… You can take the simple logical one to the bank every time.
      I applaud TTAC for admitting that they might have got it wrong.
      The surprise is that certain forums are still convinced that Gilbert was right and there is a razor “theoretical possibility” that this might be software/emi problem.

  • avatar

    The Tin Whiskers would be an AWESOME name for a band.

  • avatar

    My neighbor and his wife bought a Jap-built 1989 Camry V6 new, way back when.  When their daughter returned home from the Air Force to go to school full-time, they let her use that 1989 Camry to commute. The neighbors bought a new 1992 Camry to replace that 1989 Camry, then a 1996 Camry, then a 2000 Camry, then a 2004 Camry, finally switching over to buying a 2008 Lexus ES.  They still have that old 1989 Camry, with over 160,000 miles on it.  In fact it still has the original spark plugs, and the only work ever done to it was having the air conditioning system rebuilt.  The moral of the story?  All the other  Camry they owned were made in Kentucky and they all had warranty-repair problems. And those problems included an exceptionally fast idle, hesitation during acceleration, and mechanical and electrical failures. No sudden unintended acceleration.
    We did not buy our first-ever foreign brand car until 2008, a 2008 Jap-built Highlander Limited AWD.  It has been flawless. It uses a Nippon-Denso gas-pedal assembly and the floor mats are fastened to the floor with plastic clips.  If I undo the clips and slide the mat forward I can get the gas-pedal to hang up on it.  And when I press the gas-pedal down and hold it down to simulate SUA, I can push the gear shift lever to Neutral and disengage the power train from the wheels, with the engine racing away (it’s electronically governored at 6350 rpm).  I think that his whole orchestrated anti-Toyota campaign was initiated by the vested interests of the American car makers and their UAW cronies.  Well, it backfired. I expect Toyota to do extremely well going forward and offer even better automobiles to the buying public, worldwide.

  • avatar
    Sandy A

    I’m wondering if TTAC or anyone who has posted in response to this article bothered to even read the full NASA’s report. Unlike political appointees like LaHood, the engineers do not complety rule out electronic problems. In fact they DID find faults. They did find that radiation/EMI did cause behavior that was not intended by the designers and the DID find TIN WHISKERS which caused shorts in the ETC electronics of a vehicle that was reported to have a SUA incident. However, they couldn’t replicate those events. It is very difficult (imposible) to prove a negative, which is what they are trying to do. In fact, the type of things that NASA found actually strengthens the case of the plaintiffs in many SUA cases. There ARE faults in the electronics and software.
    For those of you who would prefer to get the facts instead of the (misleading headlines) the full NASA report is here:
    One final issue: NASA was NOT given softcopies of Toyota software. Engineers had to go to Toyota facilities to look at the code. They did not test the actual code. Instead they had to model the code that they saw in written form in a controlled (by Toyota) environment. They could not take the code and test it outside of the Toyota facilities.
    Testing of a “model” of the actual code doesn’t prove anything. The conditions underwhich the software was verified didn’t allow NASA to completely test the interaction of all the different modules in the system, or with hardware in-the-loop. Moreover, they didn’t test every version of the software. In fact it appears they tested a 2007 version, not the earlier versions where most of the SUA events alledgedly occured.

  • avatar


    If you want to bitterly cling to theory that there are some mysterious demons that are causing Toyotas to careen out of control, be my guest. There is nothing in that report that implies any such thing. It specifically stated the NASA did not find that the ETC electronics were a likely cause, that there were multiple safety features designed into the ETC to prevent UA, there was no fault in the software code that would cause UA, no evidence that any reasonable level of electromagnetic interference could cause UA, and that failures in the ETC system had no effect on braking performance. They confirmed that there was a theoretical possibility that two faults could combine under very specific conditions that could cause UA, but that there was no real world evidence that it had ever happened or that is was ever likely to occur. They indicated that the incidents reviewed were consistent with pedal misapplication (driver error). Please don’t mischaracterize the findings. Here is the exective summary:

    And another good read:

    If you actually think that anything in that report is going to help in the plaintiffs cases, you are mistaken.

    • 0 avatar
      Sandy A

      Thanks for The Atlantic article. I hadn’t seen that, but I had seen the data: older drivers are to blame. Clearly driver error is a (large) component for SUA. However, the executive summary that you referred me to (which I had read and was included in the link I posted) doesn’t do the full report justice.

      The full report (and the Appendices) provide significant ammunition for the plaintiffs.

      Those two faults you mention: The first one can occur undected by the ETC and can remain undetected indefinitely. The second one can occur anytime after the first fault and is also undetected by the ETC. Each of these faults, although unlikely, do not have to occur at the same time and can occur monthsyears apart.

      The fact that tin whiskers were actually identified to have caused a short is a big deal. Some people on this forum have scorned the idea, but the report indicates, without a doubt, that they did in fact find the whiskers. And, they found that the circuit had been modified as a result of the whiskers without human involvment. Toyota (Exponent) likes to use the word “re-engineered” to attempt to imply that human involvement is necessary to change the circuit. Not true. Moreover, the computer couldn’t detect the fault.

      The fact that the engine speed changed due to radiation/EMI is a big deal. Although under NASA test the speed went down or completely shut down, there was no evidence that under different conditions (there are an infinite number of them) it couldn’t occur in the other direction. The fact that engine speed was affected says a lot.

      On top of everything, they admit that they can’t completely account for the statistical anomolies in the NHTSA database. 

      I don’t believe I am misrepresenting anything. I am simply pointing out the many holes in the report. Since I’m in the business of embedded systems I know that one cannot say with absolute certainty (like LaHood is) that the problem is not electronic.

      There is certainly a lot of evidence that supports electronics-based SUA. However, NASA was not able to find the specific instances that could trigger a full-blown SUA incident. They did uncover minor events, but not major ones. Also they did mention the fact that brakes could in fact significantly degrade under certain conditions. While the degraded brakes could eventually bring the car to a full stop, it was at a quarter of a G of deceleration.

      I don’t know if you noticed, but it seemed very much like NHTSA was trying to pat itself on the back and claim that it was right all along. The engineers at the conference were not as definite as LaHood was.

      Finally, this study was by no means complete. And anyone who says so, or tries to imply that it is, is either biased (like LaHood) or uninformed. Although I admit that I am playing devils advocate (I have no stake in this), I am an engineer, and I do manage and develop embedded systems. So do have some decent knowledge of these issues. 

  • avatar
    Sandy A

    I want to clarify something about the brakes. NASA found that once the brakes were degraded due to an open throttle condition, that deceleration occurred at 0.25g when the brakes were fully pressed down (and you aren’t pumping).

    Just as a reference, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds is approximately 0.25g (ok 0.27g). Normally the brakes have at least 3x the control authority over the powertrain which is why you can decelerate from 60 mph to 0 mph in a much shorter time (~3 sec). In other words, the brakes were found to have one third of their normal power. That may be very alarming to someone who doesn’t expect to be pressing with all their weight on the brakes. They may continue to press down as they normally do, thereby allowing the powertrain to overwhelm the brakes.

    • 0 avatar

      That is once the brakes are degraded, that doesn’t mean that they have only  one third the normal power during the SUA “event”. And nobody is going to only press down as they normally do if they are trying to stop a runaway car, they’re going to try to shove the pedal through the floorboard.

      If these nits that you are picking were significant, they would have been included in the findings of the executive summary, which I would point out was written by the NASA and NHTSA scientists who performed the study. Of course they can’t entirely rule out every incredibly unlikely possibility, but do you really think that they would issue a report that effectively exonerates the vehicles and says that the events were likely due to driver error if the overwhelming evidence didn’t point to that conclusion? What you’re pointing out are the kinds of things that the trial lawyers will try to use to convince technically ignorant jurors to disregard the plain findings of the report in order to extract millions of dollars from Toyota. Implying that the report supports the plaintiff’s cases is absurd.

  • avatar
    Sandy A

    P. 20 of 177 of the full NASA report:

    Quote: “Due to system complexity which will be described and the many possible electronic software and hardware systems interactions it is not realistic to prove that the ETCSi cannot cause UAs. Today’s vehicles are sufficiently complex that no reasonable amount of analysis or testing can prove electronics and software have no errors. Therefore, absence of proof that the ETCSi caused a UA does not vindicate the system.”

    NASA’s own words. Not mine.

    • 0 avatar

      Note the second sentence above:
      Today’s vehicles are sufficiently complex that no reasonable amount of analysis or testing can prove electronics and software have no errors.

      No manufacturer can absolutely prove their vehicles are 100% safe.
      This is the logic by which Toyota should hand over billions to the (scientifically illiterate) trial bar?

  • avatar

    This is an excellent debate.
    I would just like to add that there are few, if any, things that can be proven with absolute certainty. So the question here would be how much confidence the engineers have in the overall results. Thus, the important question is not whether it is “realistic to prove [with absolute certainty] that ECTSi cannot cause UAs,” but whether there is still reasonable grounds to suspect that such events could indeed have happened. A clearer statement of how much testing and evidence the engineers would need to “vindicate the system” in their sense of the term would help as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually it is quite easy to prove all kinds of things with absolute certainty.  Prove that penguins live at Antarctica… easy.. find one and you are done… Prove that penguins don’t live in the Arctic, a little harder  since you would have to simultaneous and continuously search the entire arctic.   The best you can say is… we have never seen one there…
      The NASA scientist was very clear at the press conference, you can’t prove a negative.  And while they have not “vindicated” the Toyota drive by wire pedal and supporting systems, they threw ever test they know at it and found ZERO situations were the ECU would freak out and SUA.  NONE, ZERO, NOT HAPPENING.
      What do we know now, what did the report say? Well without naming names it was clear that they think:

      Prof. Gilbert is a hack.
      Rhonda Smith is confused
      Sikes made crap up
      Haggerty had a sticky CTS pedal
      Woz needs to read his owners manual and
      The Saylor family were killed by a combination of a bad floor mat and driver panic.


    • 0 avatar

      I’m going to have to disagree with you about the ‘absolute proof’ thing. There are all kinds of things that you are assuming to be true and verifiable that are difficult to establish with theoretical or epistemic certainty, even in the penguin example you cite. Not the least of such problems relate to the degree of reliability we can place on our observational instruments (e.g., our eyes), how our brains are wired, whether reality conforms to our perception of it, and so on. There has been a lot of important work done in epistemology and the philosophy of science on this kind of topic, and there are all kinds of thought experiments showing the kinds of things that we take for granted in making the kinds of ‘penguin’ claim you made above, but which can’t be proven with demonstrative epistemic certainty. You may be able to claim that Penguins live in the Antarctic with practical certainty (and that’s usually more than sufficient for most purposes, including scientific ones), but not with theoretical or epistemic certainty. The best you can do is to not have your claim falsified, but you can never verify with absolute theoretical or epistemic certainty that it is true. There is a lot of literature on this topic in epistemology and the philosophy of science, and all kinds of thought experiments from Descartes all the way to the ancient Greeks relating to this issue (the most recent ‘pop’ version being found in the movie, “The Matrix”, or the more recent “Inception”). There even appears to be a certain level of uncertainty within mathematical claims, which have until recent times been held up as the standard for what is to count as a demonstrative proof.

    • 0 avatar

      Well put!  When you cease to question assumptions is when you are mostly likely to be blindsided by events.

  • avatar

    This is a great discussion, I don’t know where else to find these kind of threads. I have been thinking of the whole “panic” issue and I wonder if there have ever been studies of accelerator-panic, where the right leg becomes stuck in some kind of temporary paralysis. It seems too easy for me from my armchair to think how simple it would be to switch to the brake from the gas pedal — but panic does funny things to people. Could we become so terrified that we focus on steering this crazy racing vehicle and temporarily lose the ability to move our right leg? I am thinking of a tragic incident a few years ago when a father was taking his teenage daughter for some initial driving lessons in a deserted parking lot, when she floored it she could not muster the willpower to lift her foot off the gas. The father desperately tried everything to steer, brake from the passenger seat etc but to no avail until they ran onto a home’s front yard where a mother was holdiing her baby, the mother saw the car coming and tossed the baby off to the side but the mother was killed (baby survived). I envisioned that poor father yelling to the girl to switch to the brake but this would only make her panic more and press the pedal down even more firmly… I imagine an almost instinctive urge may be there to put the foot down and “run away” i.e. flee. If this is the case, I do not know what the solution is unless panic stops are included in young driver training. Perhaps that would be as valuable a skill as, say, how to deal with stopping on an icy road surface. I don’t think panic training is done well if at all, we get lulled into such complacency (I think I am as guilty as anyone)… the car interior is soothing and nowadays there are so many distracting gadgets in the interior, so that emergencies catch us even more off guard… any way thanks for the chance to share.

    • 0 avatar

      You must train yourself on how to react during panic situations.  This is, of course, not part of your typical driver’s ed class, so any given panic situation is probably the driver’s first.  The insight that you may know what to do but be unable to execute in the moment is the key lesson from this discussion.

      (Also, kudos to TTAC for hosting this discussion.)

    • 0 avatar

      @Russ: I laughed at some of the posts that were being made during the unintended acceleration episodes. Many were of the “i’ll do exactly this and such and such and my superior wisdom and reaction times will keep me from having an accident” and so on. Having been through an UA event (two decades before these latest ones), I panicked. I had no indication anything was about to happen, and didn’t have the presence of mind to rationally think through the event. All I could do was to stand on my brakes, and luckily they saved me. My situation sound similar to the one you describe, only I stood on the brakes and not the accelerator. And the only thing I would have destroyed was my car, not a home or someone’s life.
      @Morea: Your assessment is correct. You may know what to do, but can you do it in that moment? Everyone likes to think they can, but you won’t know until it’s your turn.

  • avatar

    Lets face it, all of the major vehicle manufacturers have had recalls for various issues over the past few decades. If you look at the overall picture, Toyota has put out allot of fantastic cars.  The Prius (for reference: has push the MPG level to new heights.  Most of the competitors are still in their 1st Generation of Hybrid vehicles while Toyota is already 6 generations ahead.  I feel that future Toyota owners should feel comfortable with their purchase in spite of the bad PR received due to the break re call issues.

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