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:

“While driving, the engine speed dropped and accelerator pedal stopped responding. After towing the truck home I read the scan codes and there [sic] many that related to the throttle body sensors. In order to debug the system, I cleared the problem.

With the key on and the engine not running, I tested the drive-by-wire system manually. It responded correctly and showed no problems. No more codes were thrown. I started the truck and put it in gear and engine went to full throttle immediately. I turned the truck off quickly and rechecked the drive-by-wire servo system. It still worked correctly with no codes thrown.

I am an engineer and have worked a great deal with servo systems, including writing a book on the how to troubleshoot these systems.

I can’t believe that the designers did not build any redundancy into the feedback and control devices. This device is considered a major risk in a failure mode analysis. If I did that type of work in my position I would be fired and have and unending list of lawsuits brought against me. This truck has been incredible in terms of reliability however I am very surprised that a company as large as Toyota would leave something like this to chance. This device can easily fail in a way that would cause a life threatening situation.

I was lucky to have it fail at low throttle and not full throttle as it did when I tested it at home.

This is a definite safety issue and Toyota needs to address it. I called Toyota and they “couldn’t help” me. It cost $1200 to repair. It’s not the money; it’s the risk that this failure imposes. The truck now belongs to my 16 year-old son and I’m concerned about his safety. I also have a video that shows the methods I used to test the system and the failure happening right in my driveway!”

We’re hoping to persuade him to post this video on YouTube. After all, it’s important to keep those questions coming.