You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

In the innocent days of the distant past, (six weeks ago) Toyota Motor Corporation President Jim Lentz raised his right hand and swore before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Commerce and Energy that Toyota would work with Dr. David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University Carbondale to investigate the conclusion of his preliminary report, that the accelerator pedal position sensor may have faulty failsafe logic.

Perhaps Lentz actually meant to say that Toyota would work over Dr. Gilbert, because, rather than dispatch its technical team to Carbondale for scientific inquiry, Toyota’s corporate counsel Vince Galvin, accompanied by another lawyer and a gas turbine efficiency design expert from Exponent showed up at SIU to cowl university administrators, before treating Gilbert to a preview deposition.

For Dr. Gilbert, the meeting was a first: “I don’t live a daily life of controversy,” he says

That changed in January, when Gilbert, a Tundra owner with 30 years experience teaching automotive electronics, decided to run some basic diagnostic tests on a Toyota truck at the school’s automotive technology lab. What he found surprised him – you could put a fault in the system that wasn’t detectable. He had focused on the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor (APPS), figuring it was the ETC’s one major input. In early February, Dr. Gilbert verified his first tests and then contacted some technical folks he knew at Toyota and NHTSA to report his findings. When neither expressed any real interest, Gilbert contacted Safety Research & Strategies.

In early February, SRS hired Gilbert for the modest sum of $150 an hour, and provided him with $4000 in diagnostic tools to examine and test the APPS in a array of Toyota and Lexus models to ascertain how they function and the whether corrupted signals can introduce unwanted outcomes.  The university approved his research on February 10.

Gilbert’s work was important because it challenged Toyota’s central argument in deflecting several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigations into its electronic throttle control. The automaker had consistently argued that its electronics could not be blamed for any sudden unintended acceleration complaints because multiple redundancies ensured that any uncommanded acceleration would be detected by its failsafe system. A Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC) would be sent, and the vehicle would be sent into limp-home mode.

The agency, however, wasn’t getting complaints about Toyota vehicles limping home – it was fielding reports from motorists describing runaway vehicles that no amount of braking could stop. Indeed, one might sensibly ask: why is no fault code set when the system is getting extreme contradictory commands – wide open throttle and heavy braking? But NHTSA, armed with an institutional bias toward driver error and no clue how to probe the complaints beyond test drives and some generic tests, accepted Toyota’s explanations.

With the first Congressional hearing looming on February, Gilbert labored quickly to complete a preliminary round of tests and memorialize his protocols in a report submitted to the House Committee on Commerce and Energy, along with his testimony. Toyota Electronic Throttle Control System Preliminary Investigation showed that there are conditions in the Toyota and Lexus models tested in which the failsafe redundancy of electronic circuitry in the ETC can be lost – particularly in the APPS – without detecting an error code or employing a failsafe mode.  Once the redundant failsafe is lost and it is not detected as an error, the vehicle is in an unsafe condition.  The purpose for setting an error code and putting the vehicle into a failsafe mode is to protect the driver from any further potential scenarios in which the ETC behaves in a manner inconsistent with driver input.

Dr. Gilbert’s findings also showed that once the failsafe is lost and undetected by the vehicle computer as an error, various scenarios can be introduced in which the Electronic Control Module (ECM) can read a wide-open throttle condition without any input from the driver, again without setting any error codes. Simply increasing the voltage to the APPS while in a compromised state can induce an uncommanded wide-open throttle condition, again resulting in no detectable codes. These scenarios can occur because the Toyota failsafe parameters are broad – the design allows a wide window of opportunity for problems to occur that are not seen as abnormal. (Read Dr. Gilbert’s report here)

Dr. Gilbert’s testimony was well received by the Congressional committee. Many members of the Sub-committee on Oversight and Investigations asked questions that Dr. Gilbert answered in his unassuming style. A staffer from Congressman John Shimkus’ office (R-Dist. 19) discretely passed his business card and invited Dr. Gilbert for a personal tour of the Capitol and the House chambers.

But, as the old Jim Croce song goes, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape. Toyota had come bearing its own report, prepared by the defense-litigation experts from Exponent. Exponent was meant to provide Toyota with a fig leaf of independence (purchased at premium prices) as the automaker defended the integrity of its electronics to Congress. Lentz testified that Exponent had been working until the wee hours of the morning to perform its independent analysis.

The automaker didn’t take kindly to Gilbert pointing out the weaknesses in its infallible failsafe system. And it moved on a number of fronts to shut Dr. Gilbert down.

Dr. Gilbert’s name appeared prominently in an online opinion survey posted in late February to gauge public reaction to Dr. Gilbert’s credibility and to test the resonance of an attack message based on his presumed ties to plaintiffs’ attorneys.  With an “unlimited budget,” according to Lentz’s congressional testimony, Exponent went to work on its refutation. In early March, Toyota held a high-profile web-streamed press conference featuring Exponent and Christian Gerdes of Stanford to dispute Gilbert’s findings. Exponent also issued a 30-page report to counter Gilbert’s work. It actually validated his results, but argued that the sensor couldn’t short-circuit in the real world.

“Their reaction was surprising. It’s not a little-known fact that you can have problems like this that go undetected. I think that’s what caught them off-guard,” Gilbert said. “I came out of nowhere and said here’s how it can happen.”

Then, Toyota headed for Carbondale to rattle the university’s cage. The automaker, like other major manufacturers, had a relationship with SIU Carbondale. For more than 20 years, Toyota had donated vehicles, provided internships and professional networking opportunities for SIU’s Automotive Technology students. In November 2008, SIU celebrated Toyota’s $100,000 donation to the Automotive Program.

“It’s nice to bring national limelight to SIU,” said Jack Greer, chairman of the automotive technology program, in an SIU press release about the donation.

This time the limelight was more of a blinding glare. Terry Martin, manager of customer quality at Toyota and Neil Swartz, an SIUC alumnus and corporate manager for distribution in Toyota’s North American Parts division, resigned from the department’s advisory board.

University officials, more accustomed to the high blood pressure that accompanied a Saluki basketball victory, was ill-prepared for the corporate pick-and-roll. On March 2, after a morning meeting with Vince Galvin of Bowman and Brooke, administrators called Gilbert into an afternoon interrogation, in which Toyota tried to get Gilbert to defend his testimony. He refused to elaborate on what he had already presented in sworn testimony.

Although Gilbert had kept his supervisors apprised of his actions, administrators took Gilbert’s keys to the lab’s test vehicles and barred him from doing further research. They re-wrote his employment contract to compel him to visit Exponent’s Menlo Park, California facility. On March 17, Gilbert watched their demonstration, but was unable to assess exactly what Exponent had done, because the vehicles were festooned with extra wiring.

On March 26, Congressman Henry Waxman wrote letter of thanks to Gilbert, and sent copies to President Glen Poshard, Duane Stucky, Senior Vice President for Financial & Administrative Affairs; Paul Sarvela, Vice President for Academic Affairs; Jerry Blakemore, Vice President and General Counsel; David Gross, Executive Director for Government & Public Affairs; Rita Cheng, Chancellor; Terry Owens, Dean of the College of Applied Sciences & Arts and Greer. It stated, in part:

“Your work in examining how electronics may play a role in the phenomenon of sudden unintended acceleration has been praised by independent engineers and has enhanced public understanding. It has also led Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to reevaluate their responses to the problem of sudden unintended acceleration. Thank you for your contributions to our investigation and for your efforts to advance the public interest.”

In an e-mail to The Safety Record, university spokesman Rod Sievers said that the university was not taken aback by Toyota’s response:

“Toyota and SIUC have been partners for some 25 years and that collaborative relationship continues today.  In the course of his research, Dr. Gilbert made what he felt was an important discovery relating to Toyota’s Sudden Unintended Acceleration issues.  Dr. Gilbert is now working with Toyota and its research partners, Exponent Research of Menlo Park, CA in an effort to get a better picture of these on-going problems.  As a matter of fact, Dr. Gilbert recently returned from a visit to Exponent’s facilities where worked with a number of automotive experts and compared testing methods and procedures.”

Today, Gilbert has his keys back; he was working on his response to his Exponent visit. A university attorney conceded that after reviewing Gilbert’s action, they could not find that he violated any policies. Gilbert now says he looks forward to having more time to develop his research.

“My life has improved a little bit,” he says. “The whole Toyota thing is settling down. My colleagues in the department have come to terms with it. You can’t turn back the clock. Would I do it again? Yes. I know it was tough decision. I didn’t expect as much of a repercussion, but I can survive it.”

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