No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

So, does this bring the curtain down on Toyota’s SUA woes and concerns about their electronics?  Hardly.

Recall that Toyota reported to Congress in January that the company identified 37,900 customer contact reports “potentially related to sudden unintended acceleration” analyzing “dozens” of data recorders from the thousands of complaints doesn’t extrapolate to a driver error problem.  Nor does it explain the large jump in complaint rates when Toyota moved to Electronic Throttle Control (ETC).  Most complaints and crashes do not actually activate the EDR, which only records data in crashes severe enough to deploy an airbag or, in some instances, in near-deployment events.  The actual pool of unintended acceleration claims in which an EDR was activated is very small.

Safety Research & Strategies has already addressed the murkiness and accuracy of Toyota’s EDR’s (see EDR:  Toyota’s Electronic Doubt Receptacle).  And since the Journal failed to mention it, we would like to remind you of an important bit of context: Toyota has always stated that the accuracy of the black boxes has never been scientifically validated. In fact, the company fights to keep the data from being used in litigation because it says the EDR data isn’t reliable.

In order to extract and read the data stored on a Toyota EDR, proprietary equipment that downloads, analyzes and generates a report based on the data is required. This equipment is not available to the public.  The EDR must be downloaded and any reports must be generated by Toyota or NHTSA, which has recently been provided with readout tools.  Until March 3, 2010, when Toyota delivered one readout tool to the NHTSA, Toyota claimed that it had a single prototype tool in the U.S. that could extract the data and that it would only download data if requested by law enforcement, NHTSA or the courts.  The details of the quantity and quality of the Toyota EDR data have been shrouded in secrecy.  No one, other than Toyota, knows exactly what data is recorded, retrieved and how it is processed and analyzed to produce a report.

According to Toyota, the type of data recorded varies depending on which generation of EDR is in the vehicle. Toyota doesn’t disclose prior to the download which generation of EDR is installed on specific vehicle makes, models and years and what data is available on each version. The owner of the vehicle does not know what is being recorded, and when data are downloaded they have no way to determine whether the data downloaded is complete, how the data are being processed or the accuracy of the translation.

Toyota now wants the public to believe that an analysis of “dozens” of black boxes out of the thousands of unintended acceleration complaints somehow translates to an exoneration of electronics.

Toyota Fault Detection Capabilities in Question

Dr. David Gilbert the Southern Illinois University Carbondale professor of automotive electronics was the first to point to the Toyota fault detection capability as an area of interest.  Gilbert’s testing found that Toyota’s could lose the signal redundancy at the accelerator pedal sensors – an important failsafe that is in place to prevent unintended acceleration – without any detection.  Once the failsafe was lost, introducing voltage to the sensor would cause the throttle to open.  While Gilbert’s study didn’t pinpoint the root cause of SUA, his findings pointed squarely to problems with the electronic fault detection that could help explain why an engine could race without driver input and leave no error codes – a common complaint.

Since Gilbert disclosed his findings in testimony to Congress – and several independent experts have validated Gilbert’s findings, more evidence that the fault detection system shortcomings in Toyotas continues to mount.  The SUA issues affecting Toyotas don’t appear to be due to a single root cause, rather, they appear to be facilitated by the lack of a robust diagnostic and fault detection strategy. So, when something does go wrong – whether mechanical or electronic – problems can go undetected and the engine can race without driver input or setting an error code.

An examination of a 2004 Toyota Camry by in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida revealed yet another hole in Toyota’s fault detection strategy. The vehicle had experienced an unintended acceleration event, and exhibited an intermittent mechanical throttle sticking condition. Independent experts and Toyota technicians witnessed the engine race to nearly 3,000 RPMs when the throttle plate stuck.  But the electronic controls failed to detect the stuck throttle and limit engine speed to ensure a safe condition.

Dr. Todd Hubing, a Clemson University professor of vehicle electronics, presented similar findings to the National Academy of Sciences panel charged by NHTSA with examining unintended acceleration. Hubing was able to replicate Dr. David Gilbert’s work and obtain wide-open throttle without the fault detection system setting an error code – but with only a single fault.  Gilbert’s analyses found that first a loss of signal redundancy at the accelerator pedal sensor was needed followed by a voltage spike to create an unintended wide-open throttle.  Hubing found that many of the faults created invalid signals that sometimes would be detected, other times not.

The Real World

Simple explanations are nice, but they just don’t square with all the facts. Toyota owners have complained about sudden unintended acceleration in a variety of scenarios – some have been long duration, highway speed events, where the driver was already using the accelerator. Some have experienced multiple events. Some have experienced multiple events in the same vehicle with different drivers at the helm.

Within six weeks of leasing a 2010 Camry from Campbell Toyota, both Debrah and Dave Auger of Chatham, Ontario experienced three bouts of sudden acceleration.

Two incidents occurred when Debrah was at the wheel. The first took place in the parking lot of a small strip plaza. Debrah was parking, and had shifted into reverse, when the vehicle “jolted back quite hard,” Debrah recalled. She threw the transmission shift into park. The incident was puzzling, but the Augers passed it off as a one-time glitch.

Dave Auger, an experienced law enforcement officer, was driving at about 30 miles per hour on a four-lane highway in Port Huron. He had just taken his foot off the gas, when the Camry suddenly surged forward. “It felt like a hand suddenly shoved the car forward,” Auger said. He quickly applied the brakes and pulled the vehicle to the side of the road.

The third and final experience occurred as Debrah Auger was pulling up to a one-way stop in the Augers’ subdivision. She had made a complete stop, and had taken her foot off the brake, when the Camry took off. Debrah jammed on the brake, but she couldn’t stop it before the vehicle had surged into the intersection.

And don’t forget the Haggerty case, the first significant incident that pointed squarely to electronic issues:

Kevin Haggerty, owner of a 2007 Avalon, experienced five different SUA events.

They could not be blamed upon floor mats: Haggerty did not have accessory floor mats, and his OE mats were secured in place.

They could not be blamed on a sticky pedal: Several times, the vehicle accelerated without his foot on the gas pedal. The engine would sometimes return to idle after driving a few miles or after the Avalon shut down and restarted or was stopped and put into park.  On December 28, 2009 Haggerty, a volunteer firefighter and salesman, was driving to work on a highway when the car began to accelerate without his foot on the gas pedal. He was unable to stop the car with brakes and shifted into neutral to slow the car down. Only a couple of miles from his local Toyota dealer, Haggerty decided to call the service manager to let him know he coming in. He managed to drive the vehicle by alternating from neutral to drive and pressing very firmly on the brakes.

Heck, Haggerty’s incident couldn’t even be blamed on pedal misapplication: When Haggerty arrived at the dealer he shifted into neutral and exited the car with brakes smoking and the engine’s rpms racing.  The service techs examined the car and found no pedal interference or sticking and could provide no explanation or any computer error codes.

Toyota’s regional representative in Caldwell, NJ later inspected the vehicle, but did not provide details of this inspection to Haggerty. Instead, Toyota Motor Sales authorized replacement of the throttle body and accelerator pedal assemblies and sensors and paid for the $1700 repairs and rental car costs. The Toyota dealer told Haggerty that they were unsure whether the repairs would fix the vehicle.  (Toyota later tried to blame the event sticky pedal, despite service technicians who stated they pulled back on the pedal to no avail.)

While there may be dancing in the streets of Torrance, we think it’s a little early to cue the music.