February 17, 2011
Last week, NHTSA pitched its two technical tomes on Toyota unintended acceleration at a pack of reporters, declared that the automaker’s electronics were fine, and ran away. Our esteemed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood then made the media rounds, grousing that the critics hadn’t read the report, which leads us to ask: Did Ray?
We’ve been reading it and re-reading it, and conferring with a wide range of technical experts – some of whom have extensive experience in engine management control design, validation and testing. And we gotta tell you, Ray, we aren’t ready to buy our kid a new Toyota.
Far from exonerating Toyota electronics, the reports by NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) confirm the paucity of the automaker’s safety diagnostics. The NESC team also identifies how the two signals in the accelerator pedal position sensor can be shorted in the real world – leading to an open throttle (aka, tin whiskers). Hell, NESC found the potential in three pedals – that’s a pretty significant percentage in a very small sample. Tin whiskers are such a serious issue that NASA has devoted considerable resources to studying them. They have wreaked electronic havoc on everything from medical devices to weapons systems and satellites. Yet, the NESC report treated the discovery of tin whiskers in a third of their pedal sample like a dead end, instead of a promising avenue of study.
And what’s up with all those black blotches over key bits of data? It’s mighty suspicious – especially since some of the information clearly wasn’t proprietary, but might allow an independent assessment of exactly what NHTSA and NESC did.
Now, Ray is a politician, not a safety expert – no matter how many compliments he gives himself in the third person. He’s a good one – and he knows he can count on the nation’s passing acquaintance with science to swallow the headline without understanding the details. Or, to judge by some of the reactions from the business-rag pundits, without reading the report, either. The issue loop-de-loops another news cycle, and the problem goes away. Bit of a sticky wicket, though – engineering and design defects can’t be fixed with scientific words.
We will be releasing our preliminary observations shortly. In the meantime, consumers should not lose heart. Keep reporting your SUA incidents to Toyota and NHTSA — and let us know when you do. It is not all in your head, or in your two left feet.