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NHTSA Cover Up Of Positive Toyota Documents… Why The Story Doesn’t Add Up

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The Wall Street Journal posted another story about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ("NHTSA’s") ongoing investigation of the Toyota sudden/unintended acceleration problem. The premise of this week’s story is that NHTSA officials blocked the release of findings that could favor Toyota, following a previous WSJ story that prematurely exonerated Toyota on the acceleration issue.

You can get takes from Toyota supporters about the current WSJ story at these links:

I don’t buy this story, just like I didn’t buy the previous story.

Before getting into specifics, let me make my position clear: I do not claim to know all of the causes Toyota’s sudden/unintended acceleration problem. We know that Toyota has admitted two causes: floor mat interference and "sticky" pedals. Toyota proponents have claimed that most, if not all, SUA events resulted from pedal misapplication. Undoubtedly, there have been some instances of pedal error. However, some instances of pedal error is quite different than all are instances of pedal error. There have also been verified SUA events for which no known cause can be accounted. It is for this reason that a thorough and regimented investigation is required and the WSJ stories are premature.

10 reasons why I don’t buy the WSJ story:

Reason 1 — NHTSA did not release the report/documents because it’s investigation is incomplete and ongoing. Let’s look at the very first sentence of the WSJ article:

DETROIT—Senior officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation have at least temporarily blocked the release of findings by auto-safety regulators that could favor Toyota Motor Corp. in some crashes related to unintended acceleration, according to a recently retired agency official. (emphasis added)

NHTSA hasn’t "blocked" anything. NHTSA hasn’t "hidden" anything. NHTSA just hasn’t finished its investigation. Again, from the WSJ article:

A Transportation Department spokeswoman, Olivia Alair, said NHTSA is still reviewing data from the Toyota vehicles the agency is examining. "Its review is not yet complete. The investigation remains ongoing," she said.

Reason 2 — The retired NHTSA official, George Person, was not involved in the actual investigation of Toyota SUA. From the WSJ report:

Ms. Alair said Mr. Person "was not involved in any aspect of the ongoing investigation into unintended acceleration."

Mr. Person claimed he had been briefed on the agency’s probe of acceleration events, but NHTSA has confirmed Mr. Person was not actually involved in any part of the investigation.

Reason 3 — George Person has motive. According to the WSJ, Mr. Person spent 27 years at NHTSA and was most recently chief of NHTSA’s Recall Management Division. He was the head of NHTSA’s recall division that let Toyota "play" the agency and brag that Toyota saved $100 million by delaying the sudden acceleration recall. Toyota spent millions hiring former NHTSA regulators away from the agency and then using those same regulators to lobby against investigations into Toyota’s sudden acceleration problems. If it turns out that Toyota has had a dangerous safety defect since at least 2002, Mr. Person stands to lose a lot of credibility.

Reason 4 — WSJ has motive. WSJ published an article two weeks ago citing unidentified sources claiming that Toyota had been exonerated from electronic causes of sudden/unintended acceleration. Other sources, however, reported that the WSJ had been "planted" by Toyota operatives. Toyota even later admitted that NHTSA’s probe was far from finished. WSJ had its reporting attacked and appears to be trying to save face in attempting to verify its original story.

Reason 5 – Mr. Person made his conclusion based on the results of 23 of 40 vehicles examined by the agency. Mr. Person claimed that in these 23 vehicles, the black box showed that the throttle was wide open and the brake was not depressed at the moment of impact. Mr. Person claimed this evidence showed the drivers mistakenly stepped on the gas rather than the brake. Let’s assume Mr. Person is correct (I’ll address the veracity of his claim in a moment). Mr. Person then made the (il)logical leap that, because these 23 vehicles suggested operator error, then all instances of SUA must have been caused by operator error. The leap is simply too much, because Mr. Person failed to acknowledge any other possibility — even known causes such as floor mat interference and "sticky" pedals. Mr. Person also failed to acknowledge instances in which operator error could not have been the cause.

Mr. Person also assumed the data from the Toyota data recorders is reliable. Toyota has consistently claimed that its black boxes are unreliable:

The device is a prototype and "is still experimental," said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. "We have found anomalies in the data that are part of our development of the system. It is our position that it is not reliable for accident reconstruction."

Other’s have documented the ongoing problems with Toyota’s data recorders and Toyota’s contradictory statements on the recorder’s performance. Yet this is the only data upon which Person based his assertion.

Moreover, if an electronic technical glitch is causing these vehicles to accelerate, then it is likely the same error sending the acceleration signal to the engine is sending an acceleration signal to the data recorder. Such signals would not likely trigger a fault and would cause a false reading within the black box, just as the false signal was sent to the engine.

Mr. Person appears to have based his opinion on only a single, limited source of information and has excluded all other sources of information.

Reason 6 — What about Kevin Haggerty? Mr. Person ignored acceleration events for which no known cause of SUA was identified… like the SUA event that occurred to Kevin Haggerty. Mr. Haggerty owned a 2007 Toyota Avalon that experienced at least 5 different unintended acceleration events. Haggerty did not have accessory floor mats and his OEM mats were secured in place. Sticky pedals did not cause his acceleration events. Haggerty could not have misapplied the gas instead of the brake (because Haggerty wasn’t even in his vehicle). All known causes of SUA had been eliminated.

During Haggerty’s final incident, he was actually able to drive the vehicle — engine racing and brakes smoking — into the lot of his local Toyota dealer. Mr. Haggerty placed the vehicle in neutral and got out of the car with the engine continuing to race. Toyota service technicians examined the vehicle and confirmed that the unintended acceleration was not caused by floor mats, sticking pedals or driver error. The technicians also confirmed no error codes (meaning the computer was not detecting whatever was causing the problem).

"Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter improbable, must be the truth."

– Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes

Reason 7 — Safety and automotive experts have induced electronic faults that will cause unintended acceleration. Professor David Gilbert famously induced unintended acceleration in a report featured on ABC News. Others — including Toyota — have recreated Professor Gilbert’s experiment.

At the first presentation of The National Academies of Science on its Toyota acceleration investigation, Dr. T. Hubing, a vehicular electronics professor at Clemson, offered a presentation regarding electromagnetic interference and unintended acceleration. You can view the slides from Professor Hubing’s presentation here.

Some key points from Dr. Hubing’s presentation:

  • Current automotive electronics design and integration strategies are not sustainable
  • Automobiles are complex electrical systems
  • There are many systems capable of actuating the throttle and/or brakes
  • Identical redundant sensors placed too close together can cause each sensor to be affected in an identical way, resulting in a reading with no error code generated
  • The electronics in virtually any car sold today are capable of causing the types of failures being reported as "sudden acceleration" events
  • It is not possible to fully model, test or validate the safety of electronic systems in automobiles due to a lack of standard design platforms, meaningful EMC test procedures, or OEM control of subsystem designs
  • Recreating a particular failure mode can be extremely difficult due to the thousands of possible failure mechanisms and software/hardware states
  • Unintended automotive system behavior is a problem that will certainly get worse without a major change in automotive standards and design practices

Dr. Hubing ultimately identified three possible "sudden acceleration" failure modes:

Dr. Hubing Identified Three Possible Sudden Acceleration Failure Modes

You can view additional slides from the presentation here.

Reason 8 — Mr. Person claims NHTSA is "angry" with Toyota. I’m not sure that an agency can be "mad" at any car company, but if it is, any agency anger at Toyota is likely justified. Toyota hired away NHTSA investigators and used them to game the system in order to avoid safety investigations and recalls. Toyota has a history of misleading NHTSA and delaying recalls in the US while it conducts recalls for the same problems in other countries. For example, Toyota recalled European vehicles because of "sticky" pedal problems a full year before recalling vehicles in the US. Toyota issued a recall for steering problems for Japanese vehicles in October 2004, but waited until September 2005 to issue a recall in the U.S. Now Toyota is under a grand jury investigation into the reasons for its recall delays.

Reason 9 — Did people start hitting the accelerator instead of the brake a whole lot more after Toyota introduced electronic throttle controls (instead of mechanical controls) in 2002?

I don’t think so.

SUA Jumped After Toyota Introduced Electronic Throttle Controls

As the chart above shows, sudden/unintended acceleration events jumped significantly after Toyota introduced electronic throttle controls in 2002 (more than 400% from 2001 to 2002). Driving habits and driving skills did not change in 2002, but Toyota did change its throttle system to a computer controlled electronic throttle system from a mechanical system.

Reason 10 — Toyota could have fixed every single source of of sudden/unintended acceleration (except, perhaps a 100% pure pedal misapplication) by including a brake override system on its vehicles. A "smart brake" or brake override system will slow the vehicle, even if the gas pedal sticks, even if a technical glitch causes the engine to run out of control, and even if the driver accidentally steps on the gas and the brake at the same time. The technology is simple. When the brake is pressed, a fault is triggered that interrupts the electronic signal to the engine and the car slows down. This technology has been used by other car companies for more than a decade and would have cost less than $1 per vehicle to design and install.

To sum up: As Dr. Hubing pointed out, a modern automobile contains about 100 million lines of code in its computer systems (15 times more code than a Boeing 787 and 17.5 times more code than an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter). There are literally thousands of possible failure mechanisms that could induce unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. It may turn out that the experts investigating the problem cannot pinpoint a precise electronic or electromagnetic cause. However, with enough resources, maybe they can. Whatever the result, it should be released by those actually involved in the investigation and only after a thorough investigation has been completed.

Update [Aug. 3, 2010; 1:00 p.m.]:

ABC News reported today that a case was filed in California alleging that internal Toyota documents showed that Toyota was able to confirm sudden acceleration events that did not involve driver error at least seven years ago.

According to the report, "Toyota failed to disclose that its own technicians often replicated SUA events without driver error." One Toyota technician even experienced a SUA event when test-driving a car.

In another instance, a Toyota technician reported a sudden acceleration event and found "a mis-synchronism between engine speed and throttle position movement." The Toyota tech allegedly requested immediate action because of the "extremely dangerous problem" and was afraid of the frequency of the problem in the future. You can read the full ABC story.