How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today

Last month, we reported a Florida circuit judge’s extraordinary decision to set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, based on evidence and testimony that Ford had concealed an electronic cause of unintended acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and its own expert witnesses. Judge William T. Swigert’s 51-page decision in Stimpson v Ford also outlines how decades of the automaker’s dissembling to limit its liability in civil lawsuits helped to mire the thinking about root causes of unintended acceleration in the limited context of mechanical agency, even as the electronic sophistication – and the potential for defects and unanticipated interactions between systems – in vehicles grew.

That a large corporation would conceal a deadly problem to protect its interests is hardly news – although the systemic and exacting strategies Ford employed in this case are notable. What makes this story important is how Ford also re-wrote the history on this issue and helped to shape the agency’s thinking about an ongoing problem for decades hence. We have only the public record regarding Toyota UA at our disposal – and precious little of that has actually been made public – so we can’t know how Toyota has assessed its own UA problem; if and what parallels in corporate misdirection might be drawn between Ford and Toyota. But one can see how Ford’s actions back in the 1980s still resonate with the agency today and how it has kept NHTSA from advancing its knowledge in electronic causes of UA that are not already detected by the vehicle diagnostics.

The Emergence of a Defect in the Age of Audi SUA

As recounted in the Judge Swigert’s order, the history of Ford and unintended acceleration goes back to 1973, when Ford’s cruise control was under development. Ford Engineer William Follmer “warned about the risk posed by electromagnetic interference, and cautioned that ‘to avoid disaster’ it was imperative to incorporate failsafe protection against EMI in the system’s design.” In 1976, two Ford engineers obtained a patent describing a design for the cruise control system's printed circuit board to reduce the risk of a sudden acceleration posed by EMI.

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.

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.”

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:

Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration: We’ve Got the Numbers!

Safety Research & Strategies has completed our latest review of Toyota unintended acceleration complaint data, and they confirm that Toyota owners are still reporting SUA incidents – even those who had taken their vehicles in for the recall repairs.

Our database consists of incidents from the following sources:

- Consumer complaints to NHTSA through January 5, 2011

- Toyota-submitted claims from several NHTSA investigations into unintended acceleration

- Incidents reported by media organizations

- Consumer contacts made to our organization and others that are reporting incidents that they have received.

Every effort has been made to identify duplicate records and combine them.  However, often the reports do not provide enough detail to link incidents to other reports.  There are likely some duplicates among our records – if there are, they are few.

So What About the Defects?

In 2010, NHTSA levied nearly $50 million in fines against Toyota for flouting the recall regulations in three separate instances. The total represents the largest single fines in the agency’s history – and, (although we haven’t checked) quite possibly more than the agency has ever collected from any and all automakers in 40 years of existence.

This tough stance on recall timeliness is welcome – but does not resolve the larger issues raised by Toyota unintended acceleration – namely how defects are defined in the era of automotive electronics and how such defects are investigated when they are rare, multi-root-cause, and potentially deadly?

The dribble of documents released by the Multi-District Litigation and Congress so far show that UA has been duplicated by Toyota technicians and, contrary to attempts by Toyota advocates and agency investigators to pass off all incidents as driver error, sticky pedals, big shoes and floor mats, there are instances when reliable technical personnel take the vehicle for a test spin and experience UA with no pedal involvement. In fact, we have discovered that Toyota techs were able to duplicate UA in one of very public and widely debated case – but lied to the consumer about it. (We’ll feature that story in a future post.)

Toyota’s Quiet Buybacks Speak Up

ABC News got a hold of the amended complaint in the Multi-District Litigation and is reporting that Toyota bought back two of its vehicles after its own technicians replicated the SUA events, which were not caused by floor mats, driver error or sticky pedals. According to the ABC story, Toyota bought a 2009 Corolla in Texas and a 2009 Tacoma in California, urging the owners to keep quiet about it.

Makin’ It Fit, So We Can Acquit

We continue to see a mismatch between the facts of Toyota SUA and NHTSA’s representations.  And our level of concern continues to grow as the agency  makes public statements, issues reports and otherwise draws conclusions without presenting any supporting evidence.

Today, NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation Division Chief Jeffrey Quandt stood before the National Academies of Sciences panel looking into electronic throttle controls and told the room that Kevin Haggerty’s SUA event was caused by a sticky accelerator pedal. His incident is one of the flies in Toyota’s ointment, because the service technicians witnessed the vehicle racing in neutral. (Actually, Toyota service technicians have observed and – at times – replicated other SUA complaints – Haggerty’s incident has just been the most public.) To recap:

Toyota’s Brain Hurts

Keep repeating: Toyota’s fault detection system is perfect. Toyota’s fault detection system is perfect. Toyota’s fault detection system is perrrrrfect…..

Did that help?

Number One Automaker Toyota has hypnotized NHTSA in several sudden unintended acceleration investigations by chanting that phrase. Its fault detection system could not be breached, Toyota said, and therefore drivers who reported SUA were nuts or incompetent.

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota, Part II

After the Wall Street Journal plastered the front page a few weeks ago claiming NHTSA had “black box” (aka Event Data Recorder or EDR) data to support that driver error, not electronics, was the cause of the unintended acceleration issues in Toyotas, the headline is back yet again following a NHTSA Congressional briefing yesterday.

The WSJ in a subsequent story identified George Person, recently retired head of the recall division at NHTSA, as the source.  (see No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota and Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Acceleration Cover-Up)

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