Toyota proved this week that it's not only focused on fixing consumer vehicles involved in various recall incidents, it's also dedicating a good amount of time and energy to debunking claims by some that their vehicles fall prey to electronic gremlins that can cause unintended acceleration.
In a meeting with the media this week, Toyota addressed and debunked the "simulated unintended acceleration" demonstration broadcast by ABC News late last month, something the company referred to as "completely unrealistic."
During the meeting, which was also broadcasted live online, Kristen Tabar, general manager of electronics systems, Toyota Technical Center, questioned the validity, methodology and credibility of that ABC News demonstration, which purportedly showed Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University reproducing an unintended acceleration situation in a Toyota Avalon sedan. The video segment aired on ABC News, featuring reporter Brian Ross going for a scary ride in a runaway Toyota.
"First, an electrical circuit that has been reengineered and rewired will not behave as it was originally designed and engineered,” said Tabar. "Second, no automaker can or should be expected to design detection strategies for artificially created events in the absence of any evidence that such an event can occur in the real world. Third, if the artificial condition created by Professor Gilbert had occurred in the real world, it would have left readily detectable fingerprints.”
In response to the sensational claims in the video, Toyota hired an independent testing firm, Exponent, and separately, Dr. J. Christian Gerdes, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and the director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS), to conduct independent reviews of Professor Gilbert's testimony and the preliminary report presented to Congress.
Dr. Shukri J. Souri of Exponent reported the firm's findings, acknowledging that Gilbert was indeed able to produce what looked like a valid accelerator pedal signal to the electronic engine management system, but explained why the conditions in the Gilbert demonstration are unlikely to happen in the real world.
It's a bit technical, but given the nature of the connector between the wiring harness and the pedal assembly, it's highly unlikely that such a scenario could ever occur in the real world. Toyota's response was that the only way this could occur is if the insulation on the wires was stripped away and just the right amount of resistance occurred only between two of the six signal lines. Additionally, the amount of resistance needed to reproduce the phenomenon is extremely unlikely in vehicles.
Not Unique To Toyota
Another important point made by the company in the webcast was that the ABC News demonstration was not a scenario unique to Toyota vehicles. During the webcast, Toyota and Exponent demonstrated the same scenario on a Ford Fusion, BMW 325i and Subaru Legacy, and each vehicle responded with the same racing engine condition and no fault code, something that might cause the engine control system computer to recognize a problem and shut down or slow the engine.
The Exponent findings demonstrate that with a bit of re-engineering of the pedal circuit, any engine can be made to race independently of what the driver is doing with their right foot. David Gilbert was indeed able to modify the Toyota pedal sensor circuit to make this happen, but it's almost impossible that this is the cause of Toyota's unintended acceleration issues.
Toyota did the right thing in providing a very measured, technical response to a very wide-reaching technical claim by Dr. Gilbert and ABC News.
ABC News might have grabbed the headlines, but they didn't do themselves a favor in the way they told their story. For example, they didn't full explain the parameter of their test, nor did they mention that a portion of their original broadcast included a video clip of racing tachometer, when in reality that shot was taken when the car was sitting still (ABC has since updated the video on their site), not racing out of control as the context of the video would lead you to believe.
But even with ABC's reporting not in question, the validity of Toyota's response yesterday was given a serious blow when only hours later a Prius driver was unable to stop his car on a San Diego freeway and had to have a police officer help get his car stopped.
Given recent incidents and the unresolved issue in the minds of many, it is still possible that there is an electronic or software issue to blame for the unintended acceleration problems facing certain Toyota models. Toyota claims there is no problem with their electronics.
All we've learned this week is that the report broadcasted by ABC News depicting Professor Gilbert's test is unlikely the explanation of the problem.