Another CO Smart Key Death... and what Happens when Smart Keys Collide?

Tell us again why electronic keys are an automotive technology advance?  Apparently, they’re so great that our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has to re-write the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 (in a ham-handed way) to accommodate them.  And so super-duper that these new electronic ignition system vehicles are introducing new hazards that are killing and injuring consumers.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office is investigating last week’s carbon monoxide poisoning deaths of Adele Ridless and Mort Victor. The couple is suspected to have succumbed to a build-up of carbon monoxide emanating from their Mercedes with a keyless ignition, parked in an attached garage. The sheriff’s office declined comment pending the outcome of their investigation.

Toyota – whose clever keyless ignition system has been implicated in at least two other carbon monoxide deaths – last month issued a Technical Service Bulletin noting that two “Smart Keys” from different vehicles in close proximity can knock the system for a loop. The February 24 notice covers some 2011 and 2012 Lexus models:

“Some 2011 and 2012 Lexus models may exhibit a condition where the Smart Key system is inoperative when another vehicle’s Smart key is in or near the vehicle. The following functions may also be affected: wireless remote operation, Smart access, and Smart start. The combination meter multi-information display may show the message: “Key not detected” when attempting to start vehicle and when driving.”

What are they talking about? NHTSA and the automakers have told us that the key in an electronic system is an invisible code inside the vehicle’s ignition module. So does that mean if you park next to another Toyota or some other manufacturer with an electronic ignition, your shiny new Lexus won’t start? Wow, that’s going to make parking in public lots a whole lot tougher.

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.

The Heavy Price of a Delayed Recall

Goodyear has notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it is recalling 40,915 Wrangler Silent Armor flagship tires, more than a year after the company observed a higher rate of warranty and property damage claims, and three months after two Texas college students died in a tire failure that precipitated a rollover crash.

The August 1, 2011 incident claimed the lives of Matthew Smith and his passenger Kerrybeth Hall, as Smith drove southbound on U.S. Highway 67 in Pecos County, Texas. The left rear Wrangler Silent Armor tire on the 2008 Ford F-150 pickup de-treaded, causing the pick-up to skid and rollover. Smith was fatally ejected from the F-150. Hall, who was properly restrained, also suffered fatal injuries in the crash.

“I think Goodyear was getting lot of warranty claims, but said, ‘Let’s see what happens,” says David T. Bright, an attorney with Sico, White, Hoeschler & Braugh of Corpus Christi, TX, who represents Gerry Lynn Wilkinson, Kerrybeth’s mother, in the civil case against Goodyear. “Then Goodyear waited another 12 months, and decided:  Hang on. Let’s wait a while longer. And three months later, these two people got killed.”

According to documentation Goodyear filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on February 22, the tiremaker had first noticed elevated property damage and warranty claims for the Wrangler Silent Armor tire, during its May 2010 review of Early Warning Data. Over the next 12 months, the company would continue to see high levels of warranty and property damage claims specifically for six sizes of the tires produced at its Fayetteville plant. But Goodyear still resisted a recall, passing off the uptick as isolated cases caused by “stone drilling damage and other external damage to the tires.”

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.

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.

    When Occupant Detection Sensors Don't Make Sense?

    On December 17, 2011, Hyundai settled, for an undisclosed sum, in a crash that wouldn’t and shouldn’t have caused a fatality but for a defective occupant seat sensor – a problem that may be more common – across many manufacturers – and more potentially deadly than realized.

    On January 3, 2010, Donna Lynn Hopkins was a front-seat passenger in a 2008 Hyundai Accent, with her husband, Tom, at the wheel. As they approached an intersection on Highway 181 in Bexar County, Texas, another driver failed to yield the right of way. The Hyundai T-boned the other vehicle with sufficient force to deploy the airbags. But only the driver’s airbag inflated. The occupant seat sensor mat in the front passenger seat determined that, Donna Hopkins, a 165-pound woman, was actually a child, and turned off the airbag. Worse, Hyundai’s sensor strategy also turned off the seat belt pretensioner. Like some other manufacturers, Hyundai’s occupant sensor is designed so that the front passenger seat belt pretensioner fires only if the airbag is deployed. Mrs. Hopkins had none of the advanced safety features needed to adequately protect her in that crash, even though she was belted, and weighed 55 pounds more than the regulated cut-off for smart airbag deployment. Her husband, Tom, walked away from the crash; Donna Hopkins died.

    Attorney Stephen Van Gaasbeck, who represented the Hopkins family, says that his research revealed many airbag non-deployment complaints for the Accent and its model twins. In fact, in May 2008, then-Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) wrote to NHTSA on behalf of a constituent who complained about his 2006 Kia Rio. Kia is a Hyundai owned company. In his letter to Dole, the Mint Hill, NC owner wrote:

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Car…

    Has Paula Poundstone been reading our memos to NHTSA about the serious safety problems created by keyless ignition systems? This weekend, the comedienne broke into a spontaneous and funny rant about them during her weekly gig with the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”

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