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:

Toyota Throws a Hissy

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 aired a six-minute-plus story about a 2006 confidential Toyota document showing that a pre-production vehicle in Japan experienced an unintended acceleration. The vehicle was an overseas model, identified as the 250L, equipped with adaptive cruise control. Its U.S. counterpart did not use that system, but the internal report did note that a “fail-safe overhaul” would be needed for another production vehicle that was sold in the U.S. -- the Toyota Tundra.

Toyota tried to fight off the story with the survival instinct of a 1,000-lb. blue marlin at the end of a reel and tackle. Its central argument was that the document had been mistranslated and the condition noted in the pre-production test had nothing to do with unintended acceleration. The automaker trotted out English language speaker and Toyota entertainment systems engineer Kristin Tabar to rebut the translation’s literal and substantive meaning. CNN paid a Japanese translation house with experience in automotive technical documents to take a crack at it, and its version was pretty similar to the first English translation. (You can watch the story here.)

There were a series of legal parleys, but when the dust settled, Toyota lost, the story aired and the public relations team was left with nothing but its poison pen. In high dudgeon, Toyota complained about CNN’s unmitigated temerity to suggest the Toyota has been less than truthful in discussing all of the possible causes of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

NHTSA: No Evidence Prius Unintended Acceleration Linked to Known Causes

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has acknowledged what it has emphatically denied so far: Not all instances of Toyota Unintended Acceleration are linked to sticky pedals, floor mats or driver error. The UAs in a 2003 Prius witnessed by ODI engineers last May were not linked to “known causes.”

True, the agency response (see second page of report) to reporters’ questions about the Unintended Acceleration events two Office of Defects Investigations engineers witnessed, videoed and captured data from was tortured. The most interesting admission was swaddled in a lot of hot air about how wonderful and competent the agency is at ferreting out problems and protecting consumers, but it was there:

“We sent two investigators to evaluate and inspect a vehicle based on a complaint we received (complaint number 10428551) and did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases,” [emphasis ours] the agency said in a statement. “NHTSA concluded that the speed of the vehicle could easily be controlled by the brakes. In contrast to other UA complaints, the vehicle displayed ample warning lights for the driver indicating the car had encountered problems.”

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.

Nine Recalls, Ten Investigations and Toyota Unintended Acceleration Continues

As part of our ongoing investigation into Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles, Safety Research & Strategies has identified 330 UA complaints reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for incidents that occurred in 2011. These complaints range from consumers who experienced multiple instances of UA to events that resulted in a crash. Below, we’ve captured six of those stories in interviews with Toyota owners.

In addition, a separate review identified 247 unique UA incidents following repairs made to the vehicle in one or more of the Toyota recall remedies.

The 2011 NHTSA complaint data suggest that Toyota has not recalled all of the vehicles in need of a remedy. The post-recall UA incidents, reported to the agency between February 2010 and January 2012, further suggest that the remedies were ineffective.

What is most striking in reading the 2011 complaints is how little anything has changed. The most troubled vehicles – the Camry, the Tacoma and Lexus ES350 – continue to show up in the complaints. The scenarios vehicle owners report are the same:

* Low speed incidents, often described as occurring while parking or repositioning a vehicle, during which vehicles accelerate or surge very quickly while the driver is braking or lightly pressing on the accelerator pedal.

* High speed incidents, often described as occurring on highways, during which vehicle speed increases without increased driver pressure on the accelerator pedal, or highway speed that is maintained after the driver has removed his or her foot from the accelerator pedal.

* Incidents in which vehicles are described as hesitating, surging, or lurching. Consumers reporting this type of incident often indicate that their vehicles are not immediately responsive to pressure on the accelerator pedal; instead there is a delay between operator input and acceleration, followed by higher acceleration than intended, often described as a surge or lurch.

    As ever, the vast majority are low-speed/parking incidents, resulting in property damage. However, there continue to be high-speed, long duration events and cruise control-related events. Toyota dutifully inspects these vehicles and tells the owner that the car is “operating as designed.” Dealers continue to follow the floor mat/driver error script.

    One thing that appears to have changed: more Toyota owners, now educated about Toyota’s UA problems, have a strategy for dealing with an incident and also take note of the position of their feet. Many drivers specifically report braking at the time of the UA, and shifting the transmission into neutral to bring the vehicle under control. Here are their stories.

    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.

    Safety Research & Strategies Takes DOT and NHTSA Transparency Battle to Court; Sues for Toyota Investigation Documents

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts safety research firm that advocates for consumers on safety matters, sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today over the release of Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigation documents.

    The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 11-2165), alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

    “One of President Obama’s first acts was to issue an Executive Order on transparency and open government, pledging a commitment to creating ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government,’” says SRS founder and President Sean E. Kane. “The DOT and NHTSA have pledged transparency but have consistently kept vital information from the public.  The agency’s numerous investigations into Toyota Unintended Acceleration have been characterized by continued secrecy, preventing a full accounting of their activities and the complete replication of their analyses by independent parties.  This lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of documents that are relevant to a significant safety recall.”

    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.

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