Analysis: Company offers aftermarket brake override for Toyotas

With all the news reports about issues with unintended acceleration in Toyotas in recent months, it was only a matter of time before an aftermarket company stepped up with a purported solution. Santa Barbara-based Solutions Group Inc. is now marketing a device called the Decelerator, which they claim provides a brake override to prevent the car from taking off on the driver.

We spoke with Sean O'Neil, the CEO of the Solutions Group, to learn more about the Decelerator. The device is another box of electronics that can intercept and modify signals to the engine throttle body from the electronic control unit ( ECU). Installation is straightforward. The wiring harness from the ECU to the throttle body is unplugged and connected to device, which is then plugged into the ECU. A second connector goes to the brake pedal switch. The brake pedal input provides the 5 volts needed to power the Decelerator.

Inside the Decelerator is a micro-controller and some firmware that sits idle until the brake pedal is pressed. While the brake is off, there's no power and the pulse-width-modulated (PWM) signal to the throttle body is simply passed through unmodified. Read on to find out what happens after the brake is applied.

[Source: Solutions Group Inc]

As soon the driver applies the brake, the device boots up and starts comparing the throttle body control signal to the brake pedal. According to O'Neil, the patented algorithm looks for a sustained or increasing throttle control signal while the brake is applied. If it sees such a condition, the micro-controller modifies the PWM signal to start ramping down the throttle, gradually slowing the vehicle. As soon as the driver releases the brake the signal returns to normal. So far, so good.

Here's where things start to get a bit hairy. According to O'Neil, the Decelerator does not void the factory warranty and he cites the Magnuson-Moss Warranty - Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act of 1975. That law says that a warranty cannot be voided unless the original manufacturer (in this case Toyota) can prove that the modification caused a flaw. Based on O'Neil's description of the functionality, it would certainly seem that using the decelerator shouldn't cause a problem that would void the warranty.

Recall, however, that the auto industry is the most regulated in the world - covering everything from safety to emissions. O'Neil explains that the Decelerator has been through a thorough battery of both electromagnetic interference (EMI) and electrostatic discharge (ESD) tests. The device is claimed to comply with all relevant Federal Communications Commission and European Union regulations. O'Neil also tells Autoblog that the device has been tested on at least six different Toyota models and found to work.

Since the Decelerator can modify the throttle control signals, there's a likelihood that it may well have some measurable impact on emissions, which apparently has not been tested. This could potentially void the emissions warranty on the vehicle. We also don't know the extent to which the firmware of the device has been evaluated and demonstrated to be robust. The EMI and ESD tests are an important part of validating vehicle electronics but any control software inside also needs to be validated. If the controls affect emissions the device will require some degree of self-diagnostics and reporting capability.

We've contacted Toyota for a comment on this device and the claims that it does not void the warranty. The automaker is still investigating the Decelerator and has yet to respond to Autoblog.

We can't tell you whether you should install this $199 device on your Toyota or Lexus. Only you can decide for certain. Keep in mind, however, that the number of verified cases of unintended acceleration on Toyotas is somewhere in the dozens or, at worst, low hundreds. The number of news reports exceed actual cases by several orders of magnitude. That's out of the millions of cars and trucks on the road. There might well be a problem that has not yet been identified with these vehicles. Ultimately, throwing another unknown (in the form of the Decelerator) into the electronic soup that is a modern vehicle may not be the wisest course of action.

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