Toyota and the Runaway Technology

February 1, 2010



Running Into Trouble?

By Roger Witherspoon

            The sun was high, the road was dry, and I was cruising at 75 miles per hour on I-94 and slowly gaining on the car ahead of me. I tapped on the brake pedal to cut off the cruise command and slow the car. But it did not slow down.

            Instead, the accelerator pedal suddenly went to the floor, as if jumped on by an invisible foot, and the sedan leaped forward.  Startled, I tapped the brake several times to turn off the cruise command, but to no avail. I then mashed the brake pedal to the floor. This slowed it only a little, as the two pedals and their electronic control systems dueled, the engine raced, the brakes smoked, and the car continued to accelerate.

            I shifted the car into neutral gear and then turned the ignition key to “off,” and the car began slowing down. It was a dead stick without power steering, but I was already in the left lane and the Interstate highway had a broad shoulder and grassy center median. I cruised off the highway and, after coming to a full stop on the grass, again turned on the ignition. The cruise command, at this point, was disengaged and I resumed the trip – using my own feet to control the pedals.

            That car wasn’t built by Toyota. It was an Ambassador, the top of the line of the sedans built in the 70s by American Motors, then the fourth Detroit auto company and now just another member of the automakers’ graveyard. The problem lay in the intricacies of the early days of the introduction of electronics to vehicular systems. Laptops hadn’t been invented then, and programmable systems were novelties, prone to failure. While advances in technology promised a lot for the future of the car industry, this early glitch showed the pitfalls of putting a computer chip in charge of a two ton, fast moving machine.

            American Motors eventually had to recall cars with what were then the advanced cruise command systems and modify them. The electronic comfort systems known as cruise command continued to improve and, over the decades, more and more technology was added to vehicles.

            Which brings us to the unprecedented recall of several models of Toyotas and Lexus vehicles and the halt in production of eight Toyota models world wide. Trouble has been reported when some models of Toyotas have suddenly accelerated, jumping out of control and running full speed into accidents – some of them fatal.

             But unlike American Motors, which immediately looked at the technology involved, Toyota, with a reputation for quality on the line, is blaming the problem with unprovoked acceleration on a “sticking” or “slow return” accelerator pedal produced by the Indiana firm of CTS Corp. When the driver’s foot rises off the accelerator pedal, the company says the pedal – in a few cases – either does not rise completely or does not rise at all. Toyota first recalled the floor mats in some models, and then issued the current recall, still focusing solely on the pedal.

            Company spokesman Brian Lyons said “this is a mechanical wear issue internal to the accelerator pedal itself.  We never found anything wrong with the electronic system.”

            While that is reassuring, the company’s explanation is technologically implausible. People have died because the cars inexplicably accelerate. If the pedal stays put, or rises only part way, there is a change in the rate of deceleration – but the car does not speed up. Toyota, therefore, seems determined to pursue a solution to the wrong problem, substituting a target that may be a nuisance for a different target that may be demonstrably fatal.

            CTS Corp, in a statement posted on its website www.CTScorp.com , stated “the rare slow return pedal phenomenon, which may occur in extreme environmental conditions, should absolutely not be linked with any sudden unintended acceleration incidents.”

            The issue is more than one of dueling press releases.

            Cars today are increasingly two ton, mobile, electronic platforms with a plethora of items for both convenience and safety.  The cruise commands on today’s Toyota and Lexus vehicles can send out radar reads of cars in front and in adjacent lanes, maintaining a steady distance between the vehicles. Other technology can alert the driver when the car is drifting across lane lines – an especially useful tool on dark rainy nights when the lines are all but obscured – or sense a collision and begin slowing the car and tightening the seat belts. Command systems in the cars’ computers interact with each wheel and brake system thousands of times per minute, monitoring each revolution to detect skids or other road-induced problems and selectively applying either brakes or more power as needed to keep the car going forward.

            And all of these critical safety systems are working in a small metal environment replete with audio, broadcast, music, Bluetooth, lights, and other electronic systems. That is an intense electronic field: Consider the static that typically erupts from home radios whenever a blender or vacuum cleaner is turned on.

            With interlocking control systems like these it is not surprising that a system may, on a rare occasion, encounter a problem. The marvel is that with so much control vested in so many potentially interfering electronic systems that the safety-related systems rarely break down. It is a testament to modern engineering that cars containing more computerized systems than the Apollo moon landing craft work so smoothly that they are considered standard features in the average car or truck.

            And therein lies the danger for Toyota and Lexus. If the company rushes to defend its internal engineering and lay the blame for its problems on external mechanical systems, it runs the risk of prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” and ignoring a potentially fatal problem that will not go away.

            That would not bode well for either the company’s reputation for quality and responsiveness, or for the owners of future runaway Toyotas.



  1. I had always respected Toyota and had been mulling over whether I would switch from Honda to a Toyota Prius in my next car purchase. I can say that I will not be owning any Toyotas any time in the near future. It’s not that it had a terrible problem that needed fixing – lots of car manufacturers have problems – it’s that Toyota obviously would NOT listen, made Toyota owners out to be fools, then tried to come up with a squirrely fix that virtually everyone knew was not the problem. NOW that it has been pointed out that the problem is probably not mechanical, but a computer problem – it seems as if they are still ignoring the advice of experts and consumers. People have been killed needlessly by Toyota’s arrogance, and have they really apologized? No Toyota for me.

  2. Must be so scary to be in one of those scenarios where the car won’t stop.

    Even scarier if they aren’t fixing the problem properly.

  3. Well,I believe you would be safe in buying a 1978 Toyota or earlier. Ha! Anything where a good ol’ spring snaps the throttle plate shut.

    It’s clear that NOBODY knows what’s going on. Toyota can’t understand it and the Federal gov’t says it can find it and figure it out, but hasn’t yet. I’d like to see to see them do it–let’s see, set up test facilities better than Toyota’s, get analytical problem solvers better than Toyota’s–and do it in say, 45 days!

  4. Thanks for shining some light on this situation, Roger.

  5. Thanks for sharing that story, Roger, and for your insight into the problem. I had an SUA experience in December with my 2006 Matrix, which is not on the recall list. Toyota has just stonewalled me, and I’m fed up with them. I can’t get the car fixed, because they won’t admit that anything’s wrong, and I can’t sell it because I’m not willing to endanger someone else. I just hope the pressure keeps mounting on them until they acknowledge the truth.

  6. I drive a Toyota (my third, all wonderful), and I hate to think it will be my last. But I, too, am very, very disappointed in this shameless snow job.

    The throttle control electronics are of course highly suspect. No one could be reassured by pat statements “ruling out the electronics” when it’s not clear what caused them to be “ruled out,” beyond fervent management hopes.

    It’s insulting to owners (who probably don’t feel very safe with the current fix) and dealers (who are working overtime at tremendous expense patching the wrong thing) to stick so mindlessly to the ludicrous “Floor Mats n’ Gas Pedals 3.0” scenarios.

    Toyota had so much excellence and good will built up over decades! Even if they have actually fixed the right things this time, they have come across as condescending and callous in a crisis, and people will remember.

  7. I have been a loyal Toyota customer for over twenty years but I am very disappointed with what is happening with the decline in Toyota quality and how the management is handling the situation. I feel that the emphasis has shifted from quality to profit. I will not be buying a Toyota in the near future. They will have to earn back my trust first.

  8. On February 12, 2010 my toyota camry had the accelleration fix. On February 15, 2010 my camry
    suddenly accellerated as I was pulling into my parking lot slot. The brake override system (ETC)sent my engine to idle and my car stopped. The whole event took about 4-5 seconds. Scary. I have been a loyal toyota owner for over 20 years. I am seriously scared of my car and deeply disappointed in toyota. For me, the fix isn’t the fix.

    • In this case, the “fix” was one of convenience based on the premise that there could be nothing wrong with the technology. If you start a process with an erroneous assumption, you will conclude with one.

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