Another Attack of the Killer Floor Mats: Sarasota Edition

Dear Toyota:

Why did you buy back Tim Scott’s 2007 Lexus RX? We mean, really? You gave him a bunch of different reasons, but he doesn’t believe you. (We’re finding it a little hard to swallow, too.)

Awaiting your reply,

SRS

Here’s Tim Scott’s story. In early December, as NHTSA and NASA were putting the finishing touches on their reports saying that there is nothing wrong with Toyota’s electronics or software, Scott experienced an unintended acceleration event in his 2007 Lexus RX350, on his way home from the gym. Here’s the narrative that Scott, 46, the chief financial officer for the International Union of Police Associations, wrote:

It’s Time to Make Seat Heaters Safer

Today, Safety Research & Strategies called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the industry to correct a longstanding safety problem: seat heaters that injure disabled drivers and passengers. With no government or industry-wide standards, manufacturers have installed a variety of seat heater systems – some that  reach temperatures significantly above human tolerances or have no automatic shut-off mechanism – or both. While most drivers know when to turn a hot seat off, occupants with lower body sensory deficits don’t feel the burn.

We Read the Report. Did Ray?

Last week, NHTSA pitched its two technical tomes on Toyota unintended acceleration at a pack of reporters, declared that the automaker’s electronics were fine, and ran away. Our esteemed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood then made the media rounds, grousing that the critics hadn’t read the report, which leads us to ask: Did Ray?

We’ve been reading it and re-reading it, and conferring with a wide range of technical experts – some of whom have extensive experience in engine management control design, validation and testing. And we gotta tell you, Ray, we aren’t ready to buy our kid a new Toyota.

Far from exonerating Toyota electronics, the reports by NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) confirm the paucity of the automaker’s safety diagnostics. The NESC team also identifies how the two signals in the accelerator pedal position sensor can be shorted in the real world – leading to an open throttle (aka, tin whiskers). Hell, NESC found the potential in three pedals – that’s a pretty significant percentage in a very small sample. Tin whiskers are such a serious issue that NASA has devoted considerable resources to studying them. They have wreaked electronic havoc on everything from medical devices to weapons systems and satellites. Yet, the NESC report treated the discovery of tin whiskers in a third of their pedal sample like a dead end, instead of a promising avenue of study.

NHTSA Shuts the Door on Toyota Electronics in High Speed SUA – NASA, Not so Much

In his characteristically colorful way, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told reporters today: “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics system, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.”

LaHood issued this scientific proclamation based on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration “rigorous” examination of nine Toyotas in which the drivers complained about Sudden Unintended Acceleration.

What We Know About Toyota Electronics

While NHTSA and NASA have been busy in their test labs, we’ve been busy doing some testing of our own. And, although our findings are preliminary, we’re uncovering important clues to the gaps in Toyota’s electronic safety net. We haven’t seen NHTSA’s report, but we’re hearing the sound of hands dusting themselves off and feet walking away. What’s troubling is examinations of the complaint data consistently show statistically significant increases in SUA complaints in Toyota models when equipped with its Electronic Throttle Control system.

Toyota Replicated Incidents

Safety Research & Strategies has obtained internal Toyota documents that illustrate Toyota has successfully duplicated unintended acceleration incidents related to electronic failures.

Rhonda Smith’s incident involving a 2007 ES 350 occurred on Oct. 12, 2006, and shortly thereafter, Toyota brought in a Field Technical Specialist to inspect the vehicle. According to Toyota’s internal documents:

Stupid Tricks with Smart Keys

Someone should have seen this one coming.

In November, a New York woman filed a lawsuit against Toyota, claiming that its keyless entry system resulted in the death of one man and her own debilitating injuries. How did it happen? Carbon monoxide poisoning from her Lexus, inadvertently left running in the garage under her home. Mary Rivera, of Queens, New York alleged that her so-called Smart Key, an electronic fob system, allowed her to exit the vehicle without it being turned off. The engine was so quiet Rivera didn’t notice that the motor was still running.

Just another one of those crazy lawsuits where some consumer does something really dumb and tries to blame the hapless manufacturer, right? More fodder for all those conservative blatherskites who love to dump on trial lawyers, right?

Actually, no. This preventable tragedy is the inevitable consequence of bad design and a NHTSA’s interpretation of the rules.

Roll Me Over – One More Time

The Society of Automotive Engineers resumed its ongoing boxing match over injury causation in rollovers at last week’s SAE Government Industry meeting. In Malibu’s corner was Wayne State and University of Michigan’s Transportation Safety Institute, presenting research supporting the theory of occupant diving as the mechanism of head and neck injury in rollovers – regardless of roof crush.

(For those of you who haven’t followed this 25-year-old scrum, Malibu refers to two sets of experimental rollover tests General Motors conducted in 1983 and 1987 on Chevrolet Malibus. Known as Malibu I and II, the tests were conducted to validate the theory that occupants don’t suffer head and neck injuries because the roof collapses on them, but because the force of the crash propels them into the roof. Over the years, automakers have clung to the Malibu results, despite crash data showing that the number of deaths and injuries in rollover accidents has risen disproportionately, with more than quarter of the accidents involving a serious roof intrusion.)

On the other side was NHTSA, arguing that roof strength is related to injury. It’s refreshing – if ironic – to see NHTSA champion a relationship between intrusion and injury. The agency is a late convert to this view; after years as an adherent of the Holy Gospel of Malibu.

Meanwhile, over at the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting – also last week – research from less likely suspects supported the need for stronger roofs.

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