• Feb 23, 2010

You may have noticed that there have been a large number of reports recently about Toyota and the continuing series of recalls it has announced in recent weeks. Here at Autoblog we try to be fair and tell the story as best we can without being inflammatory. Unfortunately, the same can not be said of all media outlets. ABC News, and reporter Brian Ross in particular, have been particularly vigorous in pursuit of a story – not the story.

Let's make one thing clear. Autoblog is not a cheerleading section for Toyota, or for trial lawyers, TV presenters or politicians with nothing better to do. We'd like to present the information to our readers without unnecessarily frightening anyone.

We also want to avoid the sort of debacle that happened with CBS and the Audi 5000 in the '80s and NBC with the General Motors side-saddle gas tanks in the '90s. In each of those cases, tests were setup to "simulate" the purported problem, but the tests did not exactly simulate real world conditions and showed unrealistic scenarios.

A recent report from Ross on ABC News featured an "automotive expert" named David W. Gilbert from Southern Illinois University attempting to demonstrate an electronic glitch in a Toyota Avalon. Let's discuss this report in more detail after the jump.


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It's too early to say whether the unintended acceleration demonstrated in the report is representative of anything that can actually happen in the real world. Here on the web we can use as much space as we need to tell a story. On TV, air time is scarce and stories have to be edited down to meet time constraints. The result is that a lot detail about exactly how tests are conceived and conducted are left out of the final edit.

In this particular instance, Mr. Gilbert demonstrated that he could independently command the throttle of the Avalon to go wide open regardless of the driver's input. Based on the report, two normally independent throttle pedal sensors were shorted together.



Let's start with some basic electrical background for those not familiar with such things. Electrical signals occur when electrons flow through a conductor such as a copper or aluminum wire. Conductors are wrapped in a plastic insulator, which prevents electricity from flowing to other conductive components with which the wire might come in contact. In a vehicle with an electronic control system, sensors provide inputs that are used to manage that system. These sensors typically have some sort of variable resistance based on whatever is being measured. That resistance affects the voltage flowing from the sensor to the control unit. If the insulator becomes worn, a short circuit can occur that bypasses the normal resistance causing the signal to go either much higher or lower than normal.

The control software that manages engines, transmissions, brakes and even power windows and seats in modern cars contains diagnostic algorithms. These diagnostic routines are used to try and detect anomalies in these signals and set a fault detection code and/or put the vehicle into a fail-safe mode.

There are a seemingly infinite number of things that could go wrong in any such system. Engineers spend a lot of time doing fault analysis to proactively determine what can problems occur. Part of the analysis involves rating the severity and likelihood of these problems happening. This analysis is used to determine what diagnostics need to be included in the system.



While it's certainly possible that a control system could be set up to try and detect everything that could possibly go wrong, there are good reasons to limit what the system looks for. If a fault has a high severity but zero likelihood of actually happening outside the realm of theory there's no point in including diagnostics to look for it.

All of these diagnostics are coded in software and anyone who uses a computer knows that software can have bugs. No matter how much something has been tested, bugs still slip through and automotive control systems are no different. If a piece of code doesn't do anything useful, it is better to leave it out than risk introducing a bug needlessly.

Useless code takes time to develop and requires memory space in a control unit, all of which adds to cost. With so many things in a car actually in need of space and attention, judgments have to be made about what is actually necessary. It's possible that Toyota decided that the type of short circuit demonstrated by Mr. Gilbert is not something that could actually happen in the real world.



Not knowing enough about either Gilbert's test procedure or the Toyota hardware in question, we cannot say with any certainty if the demonstration was realistic. Given Brian Ross' lack of engineering background, we doubt even more that he could say with any authority either.

Having said that, it is possible that some of Toyota's judgments could have been wrong. Without sitting down and pouring over Toyota's fault analysis documents and hardware, making any such declaration would be nothing more than speculation. We also don't know whether this is a fault Toyota meant to detect. That would be impossible to say for sure without examining the source code.

Coming back to Mr. Gilbert's testing, it's clear that he was able to make the car accelerate irrespective of the driver's wishes. It may well be indicative of either a hardware or software defect introduced by Toyota. Does this prove a defect? Not at all.

It may be nothing more than proof that Gilbert was able to create a fault condition that could never happen without human intervention. To imply otherwise is unethical on the part of both ABC and Mr. Gilbert. ABC has a vested interest in pumping up this story to boost its ratings. (Full disclosure: Autoblog is also dependent on advertising revenue to keep the servers running and the bloggers caffeinated.) Similarly Mr. Gilbert is being paid for his investigation by consulting firm Safety Research & Strategies of Rehoboth, Mass. That firm is under contract to at least five law firms currently involved in litigation against Toyota.



In a statement issued by Toyota on February 23, 2010, the day after the ABC report and the day Gilbert was to testify before a congressional hearing, the automaker revealed its recent correspondence with Gilbert. Gilbert first approached the company on February 16 with a different scenario about how acceleration could be triggered. Toyota explained that this scenario would in fact trigger a fault. Gilbert then came up with a different test, which was used in the video demonstration.

We are not accusing Mr. Gilbert or Safety Research & Strategies of any wrongdoing, nor are we trying to exonerate Toyota. Gilbert may in fact be right, although there is no conclusive evidence to support that at this time. It's also very possible that, in spite of Toyota's claims that there is no software problem contributing to unintended/sudden acceleration, exactly the opposite is true.

We recommend to our readers that they take all such claims from either side with a great deal of skepticism. This story is far from over, and it is not clear at this point what the outcome will be.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 81 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Yeah,dont panic when your car is going forward at 100mph and your shifter is in neutral or reverse...Toyota,who would buy them now,biggest junkers around !!!
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm glad to see AB have a retraction on this. ABC's story the
      smoking gun was about as realistic as a cartoon. I'm sure just about any car could be engineered to fail in a way that it wouldn't throw a error code.
      All this media stuff and speculation have gone is so many directions, it's going to
      be hard to know if a real solution, or fix, or cause was or is ever
      found.

      I heard a testimony on the news tonight against Toyota and the lady
      actually claimed that her car took off on her, that putting it in to
      neutral and reverse didn't stop the car and that the brakes and
      e-brake didn't slow the car down at all. She claimed that 4 things
      failed on a brand new car. So, according to her, the car takes off
      on its own, the transmission shifter breaks, the brakes fail, and the
      e-brake fails. When I hear things like that, its hard to take them
      serious at all. She should have just blamed gremlins. It might have
      been more believable. To top it off, she made a phone call to her
      husband because she thought she was going to die.

      Is she a real victim, or was it scripted? How could everything fail
      on the car at once? And who has time to make a phone call in a "out of control" car?

      Test have proven that the brakes can over power the engine. I think
      it's pretty safe to say that hitting the e-brake will cause a car to
      spin out. The shifter linkage wouldn't break on a brand new car.

      Waiting for the news to report TOYOTATHON OF DEATH ON YOUR HIGHWAYS.
      I think these stories need CGI blood and fire.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Just because this woman is wrong and because NBC was wrong with their trucks investigation doesn't mean this video is wrong.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I largely agree with Autoblog here, though I also see value in Mr. Gilbert findings. He's identified a scenario where sudden unintended acceleration could occur due to an electrical fault which doesn't trigger a trouble code. That _is_ a worthwhile finding because Toyota has always claimed that such an event is utterly impossible. Unfortunately the timing of his findings has been used by some politicians and press to conflate issues and imply that Toyota's electronics are horribly flawed and the likely cause of thousands of American deaths.

      BTW His findings have now been confirmed by Toyota as accurate (though they claim it can't occur in the real world)
      • 4 Years Ago
      Disclaimers: I am an attorney in California, and about 20 years ago I worked for firms that represented defendants in civil actions and was paid by the insurance companies. With that said, a mechanical short of two separate, and independent sensors is a little far fetched in the real world, and such a fault would likely leave behind forensic evidence after any accident - absent total vaporization of the metals. I would love to see the evidence in the crashes that have occurred, with analysis by properly certified engineers (I am not an engineer). I also find this sort of "reporting" distasteful, because it is being encouraged by litigants to whip up emotional and not rational reactions in the public at large - which can equate to settlement of cases. Additionally, even if there was an electronic fault, it does not relieve the driver of the responsibility to control the vehicle, by putting it in neutral and applying the brakes. Many times, politicians point to lawsuits like the action against McDonalds for burns suffered from spilled coffee, to say how the legal system has run away. If you read the facts of that case, you would likely believe the jury was right in that case. The report done in this instance has so many logical holes, and experts whose livelihood relies on successful litigation which has not yet reached an end, leads me to suspect that there is much less there than was made out.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hmmmmm. So what happens with other automakers' drive-by-wire systems when they get hacked? If you turn this guy loose with a spool of wire and a pocketful of alligator clips, can the same result be produced in a non-Toyota automobile?

      Maybe this guy's on to something or maybe he just has a cool parlour trick. Either way, it's not yet the smoking gun that ABC appears to be desperate to find.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Didn't Toyota's execs say that they had replicated this guys tests on 3 other competitor's cars and they had the same result? I seem to recall hearing that during the hearing
      • 4 Years Ago
      Not saying this test was executed properly. But the intended story isn't the shorted pedal. Its the CPUs reaction (or lack of reaction) that's the story.

      And there was an excellent description in a comment on an earlier story that made the case that this is a "hall effect" sensor and not a potentiometer (resistive) sensor. Hall effects send a signal when the pedal changes and not a signal tied directly to a pedal position.

      The effect is that the short was telling the CPU that throttle was ever increasing. Something that is impossible since your foot would simply hit the floor first. Therefore a prolonged signal is the symptom of an electrical fault.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm unclear as to why AB feels they must apologize for Toyota here.

      I do understand that it is possible to get alarmed over this report. It's possible to get alarmed over any trivial item. But you don't see AB going out and discounting reports for other companies.

      This kind of short can't happen? Nearly any kind of short can happen.

      Look, it's possible to design a completely failsafe system for the pedal. All you have to do is use a pulse train like is used with a speedometer signal (PFM). The closer the pulses are together the farther the pedal is held down. If you see no pulses at all, either the pedal is all the way up or something is shorted, either way you treat it as pedal up (no acceleration). It only has 3 wires, power, ground and signal. Signal comes in with an open drain input (resistor tied to ground). If you short power to ground, you'll blow a fuse and get no pulses. If you short signal to ground, you'll get a permanent low signal, no pulses. If you short signal to power, you'll get get a permanent high signal, no pulses.

      That's it. Fail safe for shorts. And intermittent shorts would be unlikely to produce enough pulses to produce a high-reading signal for long enough to cause a problem. Even this guy couldn't make Toyota look bad with a system like this, not without inserting something other component instead of just a short.

      So why apologize for Toyota here, AB? Is this your new business, waving away engineering issues for companies?

      Personally, I still wouldn't be concerned if I owned a Toyota, the incidence of issue is low, you'll likely be safe until Toyota develops a real fix. That being said, what are the chances Toyota would even be looking at this if the issue didn't receive attention?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Because Autoblog is part of the media and the media are having a field day with this. Even if there is some problem with detecting a fault code or whatever, it's occurrence is obviously extremely rare. Yet you've got the Treasury Secretary telling people to stop driving their Toyota's and ABC running hit jobs for ratings like the one described above. It's disgusting.

        Toyota builds basically good cars. The feeding frenzy needs to stop. I felt the same way about the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco. There's no way to manufacture automobiles with their tens of thousands of parts (many of which come from parts suppliers) perfectly. There will always be defects and in rare instances a defect could lead to a crash or a death. But we always have to put things into context. These vehicles also provide incredible benefits to hundreds of millions of peoples lives every day.

        The media should let the engineers do their work and devise a solution if there needs to be one. Running hit jobs with some guy being paid buy trial lawyers that are suing Toyota is just sensationalism, not journalism, but then that's what we've come to expect from the pathetic mass media these days.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Can't say I'm not a bit confused by this "retraction" either (it is a retraction, they just chose to make an article out of it).

        A quick followup story or an update to the original article (like what usually happens) is sufficient. Going into full apologetic mode is kinda puzzling.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I share the concern about AB's retraction. How about some full disclosure on any dialog with Toyota lawyers?

        A significant point that was missed in AB's report on Dr. Gilbert's 'payment' for his investigation. According to his sworn testimony, he did his original investigation and initial findings on his own dime before contacting NHTSA, Toyota, and Kane. It was only after his initial report that Kane paid him a whopping $1800.00 and provided some equipment for him to do further testing, including testing on competitor vehicles. That hardly makes him a paid investigator as implied in AB's 'retraction'.
      • 4 Years Ago
      WHAT GET'S ME, IS THAT THE PARTS THAT ARE CAUSING THE PROBLEM WITH THE TOYOTA'S. ALL WERE MADE IN CHINA. THE SAME CARS THAT ARE HAVING PROBLEMS HERE, ARE NOT HAVING ANY PROBLEMS IN CHINA.

      MAKE'S YOU WONDER.
      • 4 Years Ago
      eh, if you bought a Toyota you deserve what you get.
      billmalibu
      • 4 Years Ago
      I don't know what scares me more: Toyota handling a safety recal, or our congress investigating the Toyota recall mess. But I found this quote on Yahoo Finance interesting:

      >>>>House investigators who reviewed Toyota's customer call database found that 70 percent of the complaints of sudden acceleration were for vehicles that are not subject to the recalls over floor mats or sticky pedals,
        • 4 Years Ago
        @billmalibu
        The Toyota COO was obliged to answer whether he agreed with the statement that 70% of the reported incidents were not being fixed by the current recalls, and he did agree.
      • 4 Years Ago
      If a snake gets into your engine bay, and you have an oldschool throttle pedal, it could cause the vehicle to somehow accelerate as well if it bites on the cable. I sure hope Toyota tested for this scenario!
      • 4 Years Ago
      I am always the first to sat Toyotas are highly overrated appliances favored by people who hate cars. But this is a total hatchet job by Brian Ross. Come on, wiring the computer to short out and saying it "replicates" a typical failure? WTF?
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