Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Some Good News for Toyota

March 19, 2010

Toyota has to deal with the fallout of its admission of electronics-related stalling in 2005-2007 Corolla and Matrix cars.   Amidst this is also a silver lining for Toyota.   NHTSA has reported very briefly that a recent incident of SUA (sudden unintended acceleration) reported by a New York driver looks to be an outcome of pedal mis-application (the gas pedal being pressed while braking was intended).     This is good news for Toyota though it does not automatically all the other reported cases of SUA.

I also interpret this report as confirmation that NHTSA does have a black-box reader from Toyota.   That’s good news for all.

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Electronic Gremlins in Toyotas?

March 19, 2010

The Detroit Free Press is reporting that Toyota is considering a fix to the 2005-2007 Toyota Corolla and Matrix for engine stalling problems due to a problem in the electronics.  Apparently, there are several tens of complaints about the stalling problem.  I don’t mean to be snide, but I wonder why this is not  ‘reverse pedal mis-application’ where people meaning to press the gas pedal end up pressing the brake!   There have been several hundreds of complaints about sudden unintended acceleration and every such driver is accused of pressing the gas pedal when the brake pedal was intended.   There is certainly more to come on this story…

The Black Box Mystery Continues…

March 17, 2010

In several posts on this blog, I have harped on the topic of black boxes being key to both Toyota establishing its innocence and for diagnosing an electronics problem if it exists in its vehicles.

Most people have a strong opinion now on whether Mr. Sikes staged a hoax of a runaway Prius in Southern California last week.   Amidst the flare-up came another seemingly minor twist on the black-box front that Toyota doesn’t seem to want anybody else to understand.     For a long time, Toyota has maintained that their black-boxes (event data recorders) could store only 2-5 seconds of vehicle data for (experimental) use by them but not by others.    Furthermore, only they could read the data, and a consumer can get the data only through a court order.   And Toyota has said that they had exactly one laptop in the US that could access said data.    Recently, there was a report that NHTSA was given 3 such devices but that report has not been confirmed as far as I know.   (Data from cars made by the Detroit Three can be read directly by consumers today).

Then, the Southern California event with a Prius (supposedly) runs away, afflicted with a claim of sudden unintended acceleration.    Toyota is now confidently reporting that their analysis of the vehicle data showed that the brake and accelerator pedals were being alternatively pressed *250* times, i.e. over a duration of several minutes.  ( The implication is that Mr. Sikes was just faking the situation.   He may have well been, but it could not have been because the situation could not be repeated – SUA incidents have not been repeatable posing a major challenge for those trying to find the problem source).  So, when the data are in Toyota’s favor, they are able to read several minutes’ worth of data about the status of braking and accelerating.    Now, please watch this video clip on CNN.   No braking and acceleration data available even for a few seconds!     Toyota would very likely say “The features and recording time depend upon model year and other ‘variables'”.

Here is what Toyota should do: Release to the public a table that shows for various model years (and VIN ranges if applicable), which data and how much data are recorded.  So, the next time a SUA event happens, everybody knows beforehand what can be expected.  That sounds fair.  Right?

The Easy (and Wrong) Way Out

March 16, 2010

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.

Does your vehicle experience SUA?

March 14, 2010

If YOU own a Toyota and experience SUA, please consider the following.   Switch to neutral, come to a complete stop by the side of the road, and then if you have the right frame of mind AND you are in a SAFE location, please do NOT switch off the engine.   Under SUA conditions, the engine is expected to be revving at high RPM (or perhaps going up and down) even if the gas pedal is not being pressed.  Take pictures of the dashboard with your cellphone, make a video clip if your phone supports camcorder operations, ask other people to verify the situation,  get a police officer to note the condition, and request their identities so that they can be witnesses to the occurrence.   A nearby friendly mechanic with an OBD-II device can be asked to read the following information:  read accelerator pedal data, the throttle position data and vehicle speed information.   Ask the mechanic to store/record the data.  Take a printout or make copious notes of the data (I would love a copy!).    Or, if you are in the Pittsburgh region, give us a call (you can find my coordinates by searching “Rajkumar CMU” in your favorite search engine) and we would like to take some readings while the engine is in that abnormal state.    Even if a dealer recommends turning off the engine to read stored Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTCs), please say no and ask them to read the accelerator/throttle position data BEFORE the engine is shut down.   DTCs are not stored under SUA conditions!  The end-result is that the dealer will very likely say “There is no problem with the vehicle!”.

The rationale is that if the engine is shut off and then restarted, the problem seems to go away (but may reappear later).  Diagnosing the situation is significantly easier when data are collected while in that abnormal state.  Again, the key is to get these data while the engine is still in the SUA state (albeit in neutral gear).

Alternatively, if you want to run some tests on your car after it has experienced SUA, please consider lending us your Toyota for a couple of weeks.    We are currently testing a Lexus IS250 in this mode.   Many Toyota vehicles do not encounter SUA, but some do.   Tests are expected to be much more likely to find a problem source by looking at the latter category of vehicles.

Please be safe under all cases.   If you know of somebody encountering SUA issues, please let them know of this as well.

More Drama Ahead!

March 13, 2010

The Prius incident in Southern California trumped Toyota’s PR move to discredit Dr. Gilbert’s test on a Toyota Avalon and his congressional testimony.  Now, it increasingly appears that the Prius incident may have been a hoax.  (I also believe that that a good number of SUA reports after the “fixes” made  by Toyota may not be legitimate and have hinted at that in earlier posts).   Now, every time a SUA incident is reported, the question would automatically come up, as it should.     However, based on many different credible accounts, there certainly appears to be a sudden and sustained unintended acceleration problem.   We now unfortunately have to peer through the fog of misleading reports.    While Toyota may be happy in one sense to see some reports being seen as hoaxes, this would keep the story alive in the media, which is not good for them.

Did Toyota Do Anything Wrong?

February 25, 2010

Here is a list of decisions that Toyota would want to revisit if they could.

  1. Electronics components have a non-zero failure rate. Given this fact, a safety-critical system ought to have more fail-safes not fewer. Toyota did not install brake overrides even though it has been around for more than 10 years (see Audi 5000, Sudden Acceleration of). The number of SUA complaints spiked in 2002 when Toyota introduced ETCS-I across many of its models. However, Toyota engineers did not pick up the trend and put in well-known fixes. When Mr. Toyoda, the President of Toyota, said in the congressional hearing yesterday that he is “absolutely confident” that there are no problems in the electronics of Toyota vehicles, with all due respect, his subordinates are over-simplifying the situation to him.
  2. Gas pedals getting stuck in floor mats is NOT new. This has happened with other vehicles earlier. Toyota did not pay attention to this issue when even early-year Lexus models had these problems.
  3. Automobiles made by the Detroit Three have black-box recorders which store lots of relevant information AND the recorders can be directly accessed by consumers. Even though Toyota vehicles have black-box recorders, Toyota claims that they store only limited amount of data for a small number of seconds, AND the stored data can only be read by Toyota. If the black-box recorders stored more information for more time and can be read by the consumer, Toyota could exonerate itself very quickly by showing that driver error was the primary culprit.

The above blunders from the past may haunt Toyota for quite some time. They are beginning to add smart pedals on all their future models. These pedals will allow the driver to override any acceleration by braking (if both the gas and brake pedals are pressed, the brakes are deemed to override the gas pedal). A recall of 6 million vehicles was initiated recently to deal with the floor mat problem and another recall of about 2.5 million vehicles was initiated to look at sticky gas pedals. (The stick gas pedal issue, however, almost seems to be a non-issue in terms of injuries and deaths attributed to sudden acceleration).

Recommendations

Toyota and NHTSA must take a very close look at shielding cables to minimize the impact of EMI (electro-magnetic interference), all connectors to eliminate loose wiring harnesses, ESD (electro-static discharge) possibilities, differences in grounding potentials across the vehicle, assumptions behind the hardware and software components, code reviews, overall architecture and integration strategies.

In addition, revisit the testing strategies used by suppliers of the electronics. Do they test each product being delivered? How do they test them? What is the failure rate of components? What fraction of devices are found faulty (using sophisticated and time-consuming test equipment) but pass inspection otherwise? What kinds of failures occur on devices that do not pass inspection? Can the same kind of failures happen over time on devices that pass inspection? Are any tests repeated after 1, 2, 4, and 8 years of usage?

Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Lentz: Can Both Be Right?

February 24, 2010

In today’s congressional hearing, Mr. Toyoda, President of Toyota and the grandson of the company’s founder, said he was “absolutely confident” that there was no problem with Toyota’s computer systems.   Yesterday, Mr. Lentz, president and COO of Toyota US, told the Congressional hearing that Toyota was still examining the sudden acceleration problem, including the possibility that the electronics system might be at fault.   Mis-communications and poor coordination of messaging at the highest levels of the company!