As cars become more digitized, from the futuristic LCD displays in our dashboards to the electronic systems that control acceleration and braking, are drivers at risk?

Electronics and computerized systems have almost completely replaced the mechanical systems that once controlled most of the functions in our cars. The core of that debate is over whether this almost total dependence on electronics could be the source of safety and quality problems.

In recent months, Toyota has emphasized that unintended acceleration incidents in its vehicles were due to either a mechanical problem or floor mats causing the accelerator to stick -- and not due to a problem with its electronic throttle-control system.

Since November, the company has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including more than 6 million in the United States, mostly for acceleration-related issues. All have specifically addressed mechanical problems, but that fact has not slowed the discussion about possible problems with electronic systems.

While strongly questioned during congressional debates over the last few months, Toyota has not stated that it has electronics problems related to these incidents. On April 5, the federal government accused the company of hiding a "dangerous defect" and proposing a record $16.4 million fine against Toyota for failing to quickly alert regulators to safety problems with their gas pedals.

The discussion heated up after the testimony at the Toyota congressional hearings by Dr. David Gilbert, a vehicle engineering professor at Southern Illinois University. Gilbert testified that he had conducted some tests that showed how an electronic malfunction could cause unintended acceleration without triggering the vehicle’s “check-engine” light.

A few weeks before the Toyota congressional hearings, Ford Motor Co. announced it was asking owners of 2010-model Ford Fusion / Mercury Milan hybrids to take their cars to dealers to upgrade the software in the vehicles’ regenerative brake system. This was after the company received reports that some drivers experienced what felt like a loss of braking power. Actually, what was happening was a different brake "feel" when the hybrid’s regenerative brakes switched to conventional hydraulic braking. The software upgrade would reduce unnecessary occurrences of the vehicle shifting from regenerative to hydraulic brakes, said Ford.

Meanwhile, some reports have suggested that electromagnetic interference might be responsible for some glitches in electronic systems, and in one complaint issued with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a driver claimed that his Blackberry was triggering some electronic-system malfunctions.

Electronic Gremlins?

"The attention on the Toyota issue has definitely prompted discussion and debates about electronic systems, and it’s certainly raised some questions about whether electronic gremlins are causing issues in vehicles," said Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. "And that hasn’t yet been proven or disproven -- but we do know that mechanical gremlins plagued cars for years.

"And these hearings have spotlighted auto safety in general, which is a good thing. And generally speaking, the increased use of electronics has led to safety improvements."

One electronic system Fisher has criticized, however, is the push-button ignition used many cars. Toyota and Lexus both use them, but so do Audi, Nissan and many others.

If a driver of a vehicle with one of these systems wants to shut down the engine in an emergency situation -- like when the gas pedal is stuck or when the vehicle will not stop accelerating even when the brake pedal is pressed -- they have to push the ignition button and hold it down for a few seconds. Fisher says that a panicked driver in an emergency may not think to push the button once and keep it suppressed -- and is probably more likely to press it quickly, several times, over and over.

What Heated Up the
Auto-Electronics Debate
The auto electronics debate was heated up by testimony at the Toyota Congressional hearing by Dr. David Gilbert, the vehicle engineering professor at Southern Illinois University. Gilbert testified that he had conducted some tests that showed how a malfunction in the electronic system could cause unintended acceleration without causing the vehicle’s “check-engine” light to come on.

That testimony caused a bit of a stir, because Toyota’s own investigation had shown that these “trouble codes” were not triggered in the unintended-acceleration incidents.

Scientists at Exponent Inc., the engineering and consulting firm hired by Toyota to investigate the causes of the acceleration problems, disputed the relevance of Gilbert’s conclusions, saying that Gilbert had essentially re-wired the circuit in order to produce “full-throttle acceleration” -- and that such a result was highly unlikely to occur in everyday driving situations.

Exponent also stated that, in their own tests, they could create the same result in several other vehicles produced by other automakers. Gilbert later met with Exponent to compare and discuss their testing methods, but neither side has commented yet on what was discussed or what conclusions were reached.

Toyota says its owner’s manuals inform the driver to press the button down and hold it. Toyota sent me a copy of the appropriate pages from the owners manual from a ’07 Lexus ES 350 -- a model involved in one of the more serious crashes that resulted from either unintended acceleration or a stuck gas pedal -- and on page 96, it says the following: “Pressing and holding the engine switch will stop the engine,” but it doesn’t specify for how long.

"Similar wording is used in every Lexus model with push-button start/stop switch," says Paul Williamsen, a Lexus national manager who’s responsible for education and technical training at Lexus dealers in the U.S. -- and who has expertise in recall issues and auto electronics. ”Owner's manuals for Toyota models are written in a different style, but also include a statement that pressing and holding the start/stop switch will turn the engine off.”

"But the company is now considering whether an additional, or a different, logic for detecting the stop command could be more helpful to drivers who may not have taken the opportunity to read the owner's manual,” says Williamsen. “We’re certainly looking long and hard at that question. We’re definitely evaluating alternative strategies for how that button should work."

Fisher strongly feels that such a change should indeed be made, because push-button ignition "is a relatively new thing."

"Before push-button ignition came along, everyone knew how to shut off an engine," said Fisher. "But with this system, it’s not obvious to everyone. So, if you didn’t happen to make it to page 90-something in the manual, then it’s not obvious how to shut if off. And in an emergency situation, it should be obvious. That’s a design that needs to be improved."

Fisher says that in vehicles made by other carmakers, like Nissan or Cadillac, the driver can shut down the engine by pressing the ignition button two or three times, quickly.

Williamsen replies that other carmakers using push-button ignition "have employed various strategies on how that button should work when it comes to shutting the engine down -- but I don’t think it’s clear whether one method is superior or inferior."

The Brake Override System

One debate triggered by Toyota’s acceleration / stuck-pedal problems has actually focused on whether another electronic system should be added to vehicles. A new "brake override" or “smart throttle” system that would shut off the fuel supply to the engine if brake pedal were pressed down, even when the throttle is wide open. Some have suggested that such a system would have prevented some of the crashes that resulted from the unintended acceleration problems in Lexus and Toyota vehicles, and at least one critic said Toyota erred by not adopting such a system already.

“It’s not accurate to say that Toyota erred in not having such a system, because this is a system that has not yet been universally adopted by other automakers, either,” says Williamsen. However, several carmakers, including Toyota, have announced they will be adding such a system, as Congress and federal regulators ponder making such systems mandatory in the wake of the Toyota incidents and investigations.

The brake override system “is now being installed as a software update in customer cars during the recall work for the floormat entrapment campaigns on Camry and ES,” confirms Williamsen.

That feature is also now in production (as of Jan., 2010) on the Toyota Camry, Avalon, and Sienna; and in the Lexus ES 350, he adds. The company publicly committed to include the brake-override system in all 2011 Toyota, Lexus, & Scion models as each undergoes its model-year change later this year, he notes.

General Motors recently announced it would also be adding the system to new vehicles, while Mazda has said it will add the systems to its new vehicles by the end of the year. Nissan and Infiniti vehicles already come equipped with an override system, according to a Nissan spokesman.

"But, with this system, some customers might find themselves in situations where they can’t do some of the things they want to do," says Williamsen. "For example, I tow a trailer a lot, because I have a race car, and when you’re towing a trailer, there is often a situation where you need to have your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. And a brake override system might make that difficult to do."

Fisher agrees that most carmakers do not use the brake-override system, and therefore to "single out Toyota for not having it before now doesn’t make any sense. But I do think that a well-designed brake-override system is an excellent idea, and that maybe this is something the government should require, through legislation."

Fisher made a film that illustrates how the brake-override system works. He says that it can be designed so that drivers can still suppress the brake and gas pedal at the same time, “and have it not get in the way of anything you want to do.”

Electronic Systems and Safety

Fisher does stress, though, that, in general, “the bottom line is that the addition of all of these electronic systems have made cars much safer -- the number of traffic fatalities keep falling, every year, and I think that’s due in large part to some of these electronic systems."

“Air bags, anti-lock brakes and traction control are all electronically-controlled, and we’ve seen systems in some vehicles that have sensors that sense the likelihood of an impending crash, and respond by applying the brakes or shifting the torque from one wheel to another to prevent the crash.

“So, when it comes to safety, the industry reached a point that they realized you can only build so much steel around the occupants -- and the technology kept advancing, to the point that it can actually help prevent crashes instead of just protecting you in case one happens.”

Williamsen concurs. As a result of Toyota having so many hybrids on the road, led by the Prius, “we’ve learned a lot about electrification,” he says. “We’ve discovered that there are so many advantages to using electronic controls that we are applying them as rapidly as we can to nearly every system in the vehicle.”

Just to illustrate how much electronics and computerized systems have come to dominate the operation of our vehicles, Williamsen stresses that “there are very few systems left on modern-day cars that have not been converted from mechanical to electronic controls.”

Fisher does remind that, when Consumer Reports issues its reliability reports, the results are compiled not by testing, but by tabulating the answers on questionnaires submitted by car owners. “And, most of the problems that are reported are in fact electronic problems -- a malfunction with electrical power systems, and problems like power seats, or door locks, or the radio not working properly,” he notes.

“But that could be a reflection of the fact that mechanical systems have become so refined that we don’t hear many complaints about engines or transmissions,” ponders Fisher. “But, to bring it back around, the reasons engines and transmissions work so well is because of electronics. You’d never want to have a car with a carburetor any more -- current vehicles use advanced electronic fuel injection systems, and those are usually flawless. And you don’t have to sit and wait for the vehicle to warm up. You turn the ignition, and off you go.

“So, yes, there are some legitimate concerns about some electronic systems like the push-button ignition, but overall, the use of electronics and computerized systems, on the whole, has been a very good thing for cars, and for car owners.”

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