The Poker Face of Wall Street Calls NHTSA’s Bluff

We read uber-Risk Manager and author of The Poker Face of Wall Street, Aaron Brown’s post “Sympathy for the Flash Crash” in Minyanville, a business and investment information website, with great enthusiasm. It was fascinating to see a business pundit draw parallels between Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the flash crash of May 6, 2010, in which the Dow dropped about 1,000 points, but recovered almost immediately afterward. It was refreshing to read a financial columnist who actually understands what happened after NHTSA tried to wrest control over an elusive technical problem. He writes:

“…the net result was that the agency ordered the recall of 8 million vehicles and levied the maximum allowed civil fine, then waited for the problem to go away on its own before issuing a study denying there had been a problem in the first place because they looked really hard and couldn’t find one.

When you don’t understand a system, throwing experts at it to announce they can’t understand what happened so it must have been human error, is an unconvincing—but irresistible—tactic.”

While we part company with Mr. Brown over the possibility and advisability of implementing regulation to fix the problem, and a few other details, his viewpoint is worth a read. The good folks at Minyanville kindly gave us permission to re-print it.  (The original article can found here on Minyanville.)


Sympathy for the Flash Crash

Reprinted with permission from Minyanville

By Aaron Brown May 04, 2012 9:00 am

The entire modern world has become too complex for anyone to understand, and therefore, too complex for anyone to fix with top-down rulemaking.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL When I learned to drive 40 years ago, there were direct mechanical linkages between the car’s controls and its wheels and power train. When I turned the steering wheel, my muscle power (mediated by some levers and gears) changed the direction of the wheels. Accelerator, brakes, heater dial -- all affected things through direct physical actions. We make fun of someone who confuses effects with causes by saying he tries to slow down a car by moving the speedometer needle. But in that 1962 model VW bus, pushing down the speedometer needle would, in fact, increase friction on one rear wheel and reduce the speed of the car. The cable was too delicate to provide significant deceleration, but in physical principle it would work.

Technical Upstart Schools NHTSA on Toyota Electronics

Why can’t consumers get with the program?

Toyota – even with its technical difficulties, bad press and a tsunami that devastated Japan last year – is still a very wealthy corporation with a multi-billion-dollar bottom line. We shudder to contemplate how many millions the automaker spent on public relations, intimidation campaigns, advertisements, image consultants, outside counsel and scientists for hire. The money was laid on thickly enough to keep things cozy on almost all fronts.

And yet….it cannot stop the maddening trickle of unintended acceleration crashes into supermarkets, restaurants and other benighted retail establishments. And it cannot stop the drip, drip, drip of questions from consumers. We are still reading Toyota UA complaints with great interest, and recently we came upon a complaint from a 2004 Tacoma owner from Hopkinton, New Hampshire who witnessed a UA event in his driveway – much like two Office of Defects Investigation engineers did about a year ago in the presence of Prius owner Joseph McClelland (see Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records)

Like Mr. McClelland, an electrical engineer who happened to be the director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Electric Reliability, this gentleman is not a typical consumer. He is, by his own description, an engineer who wrote a book on troubleshooting servo systems. Like Southern Illinois University Automotive Electronics Professor David Gilbert, another curious Toyota owner with the technical skills to run some tests, he has noted the lack of fail safes and redundancies and the high risk to safety.

Here is his April 18 report to NHTSA:

Another Toyota SUA Fatality?

The Whittier Daily News reported yesterday on the death of 26-year-old Rosie Manzanares, a bicyclist who was struck and killed yesterday by a Toyota driver backing out of a parking space.

According to the California Highway Patrol of Santa Fe Springs, Angelica Cuevas, 78, was backing her 2012 Camry from a parking spot as Manzanares rode by:

“Halfway out of the parking stall, Mrs. Cuevas stopped her vehicle. As Ms. Manzanares was riding directly behind Mrs. Cuevas' vehicle, Mrs. Cuevas rapidly accelerated her vehicle for unknown reasons.”

Given Cuevas’ age, we know that NHTSA and Toyota would chuck her case into the driver error file without a backward glance. We’re not so sure. We don’t know all the facts in the Manzanares incident, but it appears to have the key ingredients of a Toyota Unintended Acceleration parking lot incident.

These scenarios were not the subject of NHTSA’s most exhaustive research effort ever undertaken anywhere, by anyone, about anything. But, they are common. Even though the NHTSA-NASA Super Team didn’t bother to study surges at low speed, the agency noted their frequency in Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems:

“Further review of the stationary and low speed incidents (combined) found that parking lot entry and exit accounted for the largest share of these incidents (40% of VOQs 64% of crashes. Many of the parking maneuver narratives reported incidents characterized by high engine power either after the driver applied the brake or immediately after shifting the transmission.”

In the case of older Toyotas with Potentiometer-type pedals one of the known electronic reasons was shorts caused by tin whiskers. The NASA scientists running tests on defective Camry pedals found that there is one scenario in which a resistive short in the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor could lead to a surge without setting a diagnostic trouble code:

Why Toyota Has a Whisker Across its Bumper

When you’ve shelled out big bucks for a message, the dissenters have to be squashed – and fast. Yesterday, Toyota public relations rapid response team tried to bring the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) problem back into its multi-million-dollar corral at the There’s Nothing to See Here, Folks Ranch.

Mike Michels, Vice President for External Communications of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., wrote an editorial, in response to a well-reported and written story by the Huffington Post’s Sharon Silke Carty about one of the most significant physical findings of the NASA Engineering Safety Center’s (NESC) study of the electronic causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles: tin whiskers. Tin whiskers are crystalline structures that emanate from tin and other alloys used as solder on printed circuit boards. These nearly microscopic metal hairs can bridge circuits, leading to electrical shorts and significant malfunctions. They have caused failures at nuclear power plants and medical devices and downed satellites. While we don’t believe that they are the cause of UA in all Toyota vehicles. Clearly, tin whiskers have been strongly implicated as a cause of UA in some Toyota vehicles.

Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records

In mid-May, two engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation witnessed a 2003 Prius, owned by a high-ranking government official, accelerate on its own several times while on a test drive with the owner, without interference from the floor mat, without a stuck accelerator pedal or the driver’s foot on any pedal.

“They said: Did you see that?” the Prius owner recalled in a sworn statement.  “This vehicle is not safe, and this could be a real safety problem.”

They videotaped these incidents, excited that, at long last, they had caught a Toyota in the act of unintended acceleration, with a clear electronic cause. The engineers downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncommanded in the owner’s garage and admonished the owner to preserve his vehicle, untouched, for further research.

But three months later, the agency decided that there was no problem at all. The agency thanked the Prius owner for his time and said that it was not interested in studying his vehicle. This critical discovery was never made public. The agency did not even put this consumer complaint into its complaint database, until months later, at the request of Safety Research & Strategies.

Today, for the second time in as many months, SRS sued NHTSA for documents, alleging that NHTSA has improperly withheld material that has vital public interest.

NAS Report on Vehicle Electronics and UA: More Weak Tea

The National Academies of Science released today its long-awaited review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations, its regulatory policies and the agency’s next steps in dealing with electronic defects. The 16-member panel of volunteers, from a multitude of related disciplines, met 15 times over about 18 months, and were, at least, in attendance for presentations from 60 contributors.

The panel’s most significant critique was an acknowledgement that NHTSA is ill-equipped to deal with the new age of vehicle electronics:

“For NHTSA to engage in comprehensive regulatory oversight of manufacturer assurance plans and processes, as occurs in the aviation sector, would represent a fundamental change in the agency’s regulatory approach that would require substantial justification and resources (see Finding 4.6). The introduction of increasingly autonomous vehicles, as envisioned in some concepts of the electronics-intensive automobile, might one day cause the agency to consider taking a more hands-on regulatory approach with elements similar to those found in the aviation sector. At the moment, such a profound change in the way NHTSA regulates automotive safety does not appear to be a near-term prospect.”

Conclusions like these pepper the NAS report. Throughout The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics; Insights from Unintended Acceleration, the panel tries to have it both ways: to lay claim to a scientific process, without employing any actual science, to maintain that it was not second-guessing NHTSA’s investigations, but concluding that the agency was justified in closing them; to say that the Audi Sudden Unintended Acceleration controversy isn’t comparable to the Toyota debate because automotive technology has changed so drastically, and yet lean heavily on the 1989 NHTSA-commissioned report, An Examination of Sudden  Acceleration.

Independent Scientists Find More Trouble in Toyotas

A new technical paper from the research scientists at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) buttresses the findings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA’s Engineering Safety Center investigation into Toyota unintended acceleration: Toyota vehicles with potentiometer type accelerator pedal position sensors have a propensity to grow tin whiskers that can and do cause shorts in a highly sensitive engine management area.

Researchers Bhanu Sood, Michael Osterman and Michael Pecht studied a pedal assemblies performed a physical analysis of an engine control system from a 2005 Camry XLE, V-6 and an accelerator pedal assembly from a defunct 2002 Camry. The 2005 engine control system included the ECM, an accelerator pedal unit, throttle body, electrical connectors and electrical connecting cables.

NHTSA Keeps Toyota’s Secrets, Part II

Among safety advocates’ most vociferous criticisms of NHTSA and NASA’s investigation into Toyota Unintended Acceleration were the copious black smears over key bits of data and text in their twin reports released last February. These redactions have kept independent scientists from knowing exactly what the investigators did, irrespective of assessing the quality of the research.  (See: How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data)

Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, ever the assiduous students of NHTSA’s statistical and informational folkways, went for broke. Shortly after the reports were released, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for non-redacted versions of the reports and supporting material that was missing from the record. In response, NHTSA publicly released some of the information in the form of less redacted versions of Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems and Technical Support to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Reported Toyota Motor Corporation Unintended Acceleration Investigation, but continued to withhold other information.

How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data

Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corp. have released a new analysis for Safety Research & Strategies that examines the statistical underpinnings of the NHTSA and NASA reports on Toyota Unintended Acceleration which shows that the agencies based their conclusions about the possibility of an electronic cause on a series of unsupportable suppositions, miscoded data and secret warranty data reported by Toyota’s litigation defense experts, Exponent.

Keeping Automakers’ Sales Truly Safe: The Edmund’s Conference

SRS was in attendance, Tuesday, as the cyber sales team at Edmund’s ushered in a “new chapter in the conversation between government, the auto industry, safety advocates, academics and consumers, marked by thoughtful, data-driven contributions from all.”

It was written amid cocktails and at more sobering and highly-scripted venues inside the Newseum, the 250,000 square-foot monument to journalism in Washington DC.  If Edmund’s is going to author the new chapter on safety, consumers beware.

In the conference brochure, Edmund’s CEO Jeremy Anwyl tells participants that the Toyota Unintended Acceleration crisis was the impetus for the meeting: “Edmunds.com watched as a shallow conversation made international headlines. We felt uneasy about the lack of real discussion taking place among smart people with the power to change laws, introduce technology and educate drivers.”

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