The Easy (and Wrong) Way Out

There are many reports over the past couple of days (please see here and here for example) implying that it’s all the driver’s fault if SUA (sudden unintended acceleration) happens.  The driver “mis-applies” the pedal, they say – pressing the accelerator pedal when intending to press the brake pedal.  The rather suspicious version of events by the driver involved in the Toyota Prius SUA incident add another layer of skepticism.

Three things to note:

  1. Readers of this blog know that we have always acknowledged that pedal misapplication certainly does happen but it does not address all SUA incidents.  Life is not simply binary: either all electronic problems or all operator error.    There is no law against there being some of each.   One of the articles highlights the fact that senior citizens are involved in more than 55% of SUA-related deaths/incidents.   Am I the only one to note that this still leaves at least 45% of incidents that cannot be just waved away by using the older age of the driver as the explanation?   A psychologist is quoted that, unlikely as it may seem, all SUA problems can really be attributed to drivers – he cites the Audi incidents from the 80s as his base.   Hello!  Does his PC or laptop work perfectly today?  It perhaps did in the 80s – simply because he had none.    Electronics is complex – just because you do not understand how it works does not mean that it is bug-free or cannot go wrong.   The blame is being pinned on the hapless driver when these writers do not want to take the time to understand what can indeed go wrong.   The drivers are sadly victimized twice: once by the vehicle, and then by these allegations.  Even NASA, whose spacecraft are operated by astronauts who have trained for their entire careers, places non-zero failure rates on their electronics when they have an obscene amount of redundancy and use the best technology/people available.   Comparably, automotive electronics only has an “affordable” level of redundancy.
  2. SUA incidents spiked in the 90s when electronic cruise control was introduced.  They spiked again when electronic throttle control was introduced in the early ’00s.   Did people suddenly become less smart when electronics got introduced?   Would/did they even know that there was electronics involved?
  3. If drivers were to be blamed, the SUA rate will be, statistically speaking, roughly uniform across all years, makes and models.  Toyota cars, after ETCS-I introduction, had more than 45% of the share of SUA incidents while having 20% of the market share.   That’s statistically significant – meaning, it is very likely that “pedal mis-application” fails to explain the discrepancy.

One Response to “The Easy (and Wrong) Way Out”

  1. John M. Switlik Says:

    There are many avenues related to this problem that bear some attention. May I use the term, multi-disciplinary, in the current context? The question comes because of the want of ‘engineering’ to focus solely (or so it seems) on the physical aspects of the problems that it solves.

    That is, in the curriculum, is there any time left for those softer things called the humanities? You see, engineers are given the authority, and the responsibility, of making changes to our world, albeit for both good and bad, it turns out many times. Yet, what grasp does the discipline have of those pieces of the larger picture?

    Oh wait! The epitome was supposed to be an engineering undergrad focus and then the MBA. Ah, what havoc has the latter spawned on us? At least the economists know they deal with the dismal.

    When will engineering understand their propensity for hubris? Perhaps, that the computational has not been conquered might be a start.

    This site, on the particular subject of automotive safety, was a welcomed relief to find in the vast sea of seemingly trivia that is the web. And, it was a breath of fresh air since there is an underlying engineering flavor. We must all hope that it continues.

    So, Toyota may not think that they’re ‘infallible’ but do they not know that they have some deep notion that they’re putting out products of ‘indubitable’ quality? Or, so they’ve been led to believe with their success.

    Given their history, Toyota is the perfect hot-spot occupant. Why? These problems related to systems are pervasive, systemic, and more complex than we can imagine. I believe that Toyota really wants to do it right.

    And, solutions won’t come out of the Congressional hammering that is so common to the controlling types (bullying is one word). No, it has to be done with a new science (apologies to Wolfram) and mindset that appreciates the underlying undecidable nature of both the mathematics and the computational frameworks that apply. In a word, quasi-empiricism.

    In other words, it’s an industry-wide problem, folks. Let’s first get everyone to recognize that; then, we can make some real progress.

    In short, all of these systems would be the same across the industry except for some minor part that would be sandboxed and would allow for competitive offerings. Then, the design, proof, test bed, and simulation/verification work could be leveraged sufficiently to reduce those failure rates toward, but never reaching, zero.

    By the way, this problem, in the small, is indicative of the issues related to problems of the larger economy.

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