• Feb 24th 2010 at 10:58AM
  • 48
You've already seen the ABC News piece about a college professor rigging up a Toyota Avalon so he could induce a short circuit that would cause unintended acceleration. It's a frightening demonstration. And as detailed yesterday, it's also bad journalism.
We've seen this sort of thing happen before. Sometimes the major TV networks, despite all their gravitas and prestige, seem to toss their ethics out the window if they get the chance to show a gory story that involves automotive accidents.

There have been several instances in the past when investigative reports from network television showed horrific safety crashes that made the vehicles involved look dangerous. But it later turned out that those tests were fraudulent. Is ABC engaging in the same tactics?


John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.


Back in 1987, CBS's 60 Minutes famously hired a plaintiff's witness, William Rosenbluth, who claimed he could cause an Audi to experience unintended acceleration. But he had to disassemble the transmission, drill holes in it and attach a tank of compressed air to make it happen-something that would never occur in the real world. But 60 Minutes never mentioned these facts, and presented Rosenbluth's test as proof that Audi had a defect. It single handedly nearly destroyed Audi in the American market. It took the company 20 years to recover.

In 1993, NBC's Dateline even more famously rigged up a Chevy pickup with explosives to make it "blow up real good" in front of the cameras. It presented this as proof that GM had defective pick-ups. GM hired investigators who ultimately found that the Dateline test was nothing but a fraud. Dateline was forced to publicly apologize.

ABC never really explained how this short circuit demonstration worked.
Back to the ABC News report. First off, ABC never really explained how this short circuit demonstration worked. It showed professor Dave Gilbert, from the automotive department at the University of Southern Illinois, with what looked like a volt meter with wires sticking out of it. He said that he could use that to induce a short circuit that would cause the car go to full-throttle acceleration, yet leave no error code that a mechanic could later trace. Maybe a more detailed technical explanation would be too much for a mass TV audience to understand, but ABC wants us to swallow Gilbert's demonstration with next to no details of what he was really doing.

Worse, ABC had no input or rebuttal from Toyota. It left out the company's version of this event, or maybe never even asked for it. Toyota says it met with Mr. Gilbert, he showed them a test, and they pointed out how this could not cause unintended acceleration. Now the company claims Gilbert showed a different type of test to ABC News. Toyota says it welcomes the chance to evaluate what he's doing and it invites ABC to bring its cameras back for that demonstration.

ABC also featured Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies on its report of the Avalon's unintended acceleration. He was presented as a safety advocate, but Mr. Kane makes his living by selling data and information to plaintiff attorneys, the very people who are going to be suing Toyota. Sean Kane has a vested interest in seeing Toyota sued, but ABC never mentioned that fact.

Plaintiff's witnesses like Sean Kane or William Rosenbluth make decent money testifying against car companies. They earn several hundred dollars an hour, whether they're on the stand or waiting around to be called to the stand. Presenting people like this as independent news sources, without identifying them for what they really are, violates all journalistic principles. Or at least it should.

Now, it could well turn out that Toyota does indeed have an electronics problem that causes unintended acceleration. But don't jump to conclusions based on last night's report from ABC News.

Autoline Detroit
Airs every Sunday at 10:30AM on Detroit Public Television.

Autoline Detroit Podcast
Click here to subscribe in iTunes


Tired of Toyota recall news? Try out the recall-free version of Autoblog.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 48 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      Quite unethical.
      • 5 Years Ago
      John, the main problem I had with ABC News's use of Prof. Gilbert was that they didn't disclose that he's in the employ of plaintiff's attorneys in several civil cases against Toyota. While he may have found a hole in Toyota's OBD-II algorithms, this still should have been disclosed to the audience.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I can't think of a single thing I like about the mainstream media or any of their reporters and camera people. Or politicians. Or lawyers. Hey! By the process of subtraction, this will make it easier to identify my friends!
      • 5 Years Ago
      John McElroy is gaining a reputation for defending the failures of the automotive industry. I'll agree that the ABC story is bad journalism because it failed to investigate as deeply as it could or should have. However to dismiss every critic because they have a vested interest in the outcome is naive. Anyone who has in depth knowledge of the issue is going to have a vested interest on one side or the other. McElroy enjoys that unique Detroit mindset that is incapable of even recognizing failure, nevermind learning from it.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "John McElroy is gaining a reputation for defending the failures of the automotive industry."

        only in your mind.
      • 5 Years Ago
      R&T has toyota vid that shows how their system works.

      http://archive.roadandtrack.com/video/index.html?bcpid=717440069&bclid=741861823&bctid=68193265001

      The short version. There are dual sensors that each have a slightly different reading.

      To fool such a system you would have alter the value to each sensor to maintain the relationship between them.

      You would need to first figure out how to fool the system then build your box to essentially emulate the behavior of both sensors.

      The odds of this happening by accident are approaching zero. But doing it when you understand how it works it is easy to fake out.
        • 5 Years Ago
        What you say is true if Toyota's system works as designed. If Toyota doesn't check the relationship between the two signals, then it becomes a lot easier, doesn't it?

        Every company uses this two signal system (or more). If Gilbert is correct in saying it's much easier to fool Toyota's system than other makes and if what he is doing is something that could realistically (although rarely) happen, does it not make sense to investigate?

        Rich A. Jensen:
        2500 claims and I would guess that many of them (half or more) are bogus, they were cases of people putting their foot on the gas and thinking it's on the brake. Many of the claims are beyond plausible with people saying things like they put it in neutral and turned the car off and it kept accelerating.

        But still, it doesn't matter how few there are. Other manufacturers have fewer incidences and without making their cars unprofitable to sell. So it isn't unreasonable to expect Toyota to do better and save some lives. Remember, you're talking about a company that omitted industry standard brake override. So it's difficult for me to say that Toyota cannot be wrong in how they designed their system. And I think you also probably aren't in a position to say they couldn't be wrong.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You could run different regulators for different output voltages and that could give a slight benefit on paper to protect you from a defect that isn't going to happen anyway. System robustness is a statistical game. You build the redundancies where they failure will realistically happen.

        Competing designs at other auto companies are likely incredibly similar and have similar weaknesses. In hindsight none of them are going to be seen as perfect. But none of this brings us closer to root causes.

        We should actually be examining "failure cars". A plane blows up and we find some pieces and figure out what happened.

        In this case we apparently have no shortage of "failure cars". It should be a simple matter to examine them. If shorts are suspected, you can trace the wiring. Shorts aren't cause by magical gremlins. You need a physical failure of insulation or connectors. Anyone competent with time can find these, if they exist.
        • 5 Years Ago
        - Having two sensors on the same power supply, not a problem

        - Having two sensors on the same chip, not a problem

        - Having two sensors on the same chip fed by the same power supply generating nearly identical signals under normal operating conditions:

        definitely a problem.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I have no problems with more sane investigations, but rigged tests to contribute to hysteria benefit no one.

        Remember 60 minutes and Audi? Did that get any closer to root cause?

        • 5 Years Ago
        The number of occurrences in the real world also approaches zero.

        c. 2500 unintended acceleration claims involving what? something over ten million vehicles?

        ----

        Whatever is going on is an extreme edge condition.
        • 5 Years Ago
        A rigged test is a necessary part of a sane investigation.

        I'm a Ford fan. But I have no issue telling you that their cruise control override switch was an inexcusably poor design.

        I will also tell you that having two sensors that are on the same chip, running off the same power supply, and returning almost the same value for throttle input is an incredibly poor design.

        ---

        With engineering, you engineer to the tests you perform, and you can reliably prevent only the failures that you anticipate.

        Anecdotally, the Ford PowerStroke 6.0 injector issues were not discovered during testing because Ford used only a limited range of diesel fuels, and the injectors clogged when dirtier fuel was used than was used during testing (although the diesel fuel was still within legal limits).

        It seems clear to me that Toyota's testing regimen for their throttle sensor is as flawed as Ford's testing regimen for their cruise control switch.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "Competing designs at other auto companies are likely incredibly similar and have similar weaknesses. In hindsight none of them are going to be seen as perfect. But none of this brings us closer to root causes."

        Under oath, yesterday, Gilbert said that every other vehicle that they performed this test on registered a DTC code and entered 'limp home' mode. He said this test was performed on other vehicles, and only the Toyota registered NO FAULT.

        Statistical analysis suggests that something is amiss with Toyota's electronic throttle control---SUA complaints from Toyota outnumber all other manufacturers combined; and SUA complaints spiked after Toyota switched to electronic throttle control.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Yes, I should've noted that many of those 2500 claims can probably be discounted.

        Also, Gilbert noted during his testimony yesterday, that the two accelerator sensors are on the same chip and fed by the same power supply.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I could design a test to fail for a Ford. Then perform that exact test on every other vehicle and it would pass.

        If you design a test to fail on Toyota, of course it won't fool other cars computers.

        Any time you work up a fake out for any system it will be unique to that system.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Snowdog:
        And if that fakeout you created for each system is a case that actually could reasonably happen, what's wrong with showing there is a fakeout that could happen?

        You've stopped even bothering trying to deal with whether what he did could happen and just gone onto trying to treat this as a rerun of Dateline NBC. Well, you lumping the two together doesn't necessarily make it so.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "Competing designs at other auto companies are likely incredibly similar and have similar weaknesses. In hindsight none of them are going to be seen as perfect. But none of this brings us closer to root causes."

        Under oath, yesterday, Gilbert said that every other vehicle that they performed this test on registered a DTC code and entered 'limp home' mode. He said this test was performed on other vehicles, and only the Toyota registered NO FAULT.

        Statistical analysis suggests that something is amiss with Toyota's electronic throttle control---SUA complaints from Toyota outnumber all other manufacturers combined; and SUA complaints spiked after Toyota switched to electronic throttle control.
      • 5 Years Ago
      ABC has been on a mission to attack Toyota, even moreso since their "conflict" with a network of dealerships in a large region of the country. screw ABC.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I spent over 30 years as a test engineer and we often induced faults into circuits to see what conditions different failure modes exhibited. Although I don't know the specifics of the fault introduced, from what I heard it certainly seemed a plausible failure mode. For Toyota to call inserting a potential real-world fault in order to test a circuit "sabotage" is ludicrous and an attempt to divert attention from the real problem.

      Don't forget that John McElroy's hands are not completely clean as he represents himself near the top of this article with the words " Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers."
      • 5 Years Ago
      "I could design a test to fail for a Ford. Then perform that exact test on every other vehicle and it would pass."

      Probably true.

      But how much more finagling would it take? All Gilbert had to do was connect the two sensors by a 'short'.

      ----

      Some time back LS2LS7 gave the specs for the CTS pedal. The CTS pedal is not implicated in SUA fatalities. The Denso pedal is.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Rich, my understanding is that all the pedals are pretty similar in their electrical connections and outputs. The CTS pedal was just given as an example, to show that the output probably was not a rotary shaft (quadrature) encoder signaling.
      • 5 Years Ago
      They should create the same test with others cars not just Toyotas. Then, they would either a) have a stronger case against Toyota, b) open the floodgates into a major society issue.
        • 5 Years Ago
        He said under oath that the test does not product acceleration on other cars (non-Toyotas). Also, I'm sure in his court case he is hired for he will produce information about what results his mods produce in other vehicles.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I wouldn't have given ABC's story much thought until the same guys in that story ended up testifying before the congress subcommittee yesterday. Before they did that, I'd have advised them that being compensated by five law firms currently suing Toyota for the very issue they're researching doesn't exactly reek of non-bias, and that artificially simulating an electrical fault by essentially "sabatoging" an Avalon's electronic systems is hardly a smoking gun. Both parties admitted in testimony that objectively observing pure, unadulterated sudden unintended acceleration in a Toyota is incredibly difficult and would be heavily dependent on luck - but that isn't enough of a reason to artificially induce SUA by consciously altering a Toyota's systems is a viable alternative to assessing inherent faults...there are too many variables missing in such a attempt. Mainly, by rigging an Avalon to accelerate unintentionally, the resulting acceleration will be intentional, not unintentional!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Let's not forget the Suzuki Samurai.
        • 5 Years Ago
        or Pontiac Fiero
        • 5 Years Ago
        Evidently ABC couldn't wait for CBS to file a phony test.
    • Load More Comments
    Share This Photo X