Thinking Tech

Toyota fights back, but is it making a horrendous situation worse?

Toyota fights back, but is it making a horrendous situation worse?

Posting in Technology

Toyota's is taking on its critics, but that doesn't really help the American public understand the truth behind the unintended acceleration problem and how to fix it.

Under siege from every imaginable quarter, Toyota is fighting back against the media and an automotive expert who claims the unintended acceleration could be caused by embedded electronics in the car makers' vehicles.

Today, the carmaker claimed a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article stating 2004-09 Prius models are subject to a new recall was incorrect.

"To be clear, the 2004-2009 Prius was part of Toyota’s November 2, 2009 announcement of a voluntary safety recall campaign to address floor mat entrapment in certain Toyota and Lexus vehicles," Toyota said in a press statement. "There is no new recall being planned for the Prius to address this issue."

However, the WSJ doesn't appear to be backing off because its story still says a new recall is forthcoming and that the reason it hasn't happened is because Toyota has not figured out a remedy to the floor mat accelerator entrapment problem. The WSJ's story has that from a Toyota spokesman on the record (I'd hate to be that guy, right now).

The story is co-authored by WSJ Detroit bureau chief Neal Boudette with whom I worked closely in the nineties at PC Week (now eWeek). For what it's worth, Neal usually got the story right. Of course, a hair raising report of a runaway Prius that hit speeds of 94 MPH yesterday in southern California didn't exactly help Toyota make its case.

WSJ's Boudette: not backing off

Last Friday, Toyota issued a statement claiming automotive prof. David W. Gilbert of Southern Illinois University re-engineered (or rigged - pick your own verb) the auto electronics in a Toyota Avalon to recreate the unintended acceleration problem.

Toyota put the kybosh on that, too.

"The analysis of Professor’s Gilbert’s demonstration establishes that he has reengineered and rewired the signals from the accelerator pedal. This rewired circuit is highly unlikely to occur naturally and can only be contrived in a laboratory.  There is no evidence to suggest that this highly unlikely scenario has ever occurred in the real world," Toyota said in a press statement.

Gilbert recreated a fault in the vehicle's electronics in an ABC News segment that originally aired Feb. 22 and was updated on March 5. Gilbert said it could occur "undetected" and result in "instantaneous" and very dangerous unintended acceleration.  "This is a serious problem," Gilbert ominously tells ABC TV reporter Brian Ross.

Gilbert explains his work in Youtube video below.

Autoblog has a solid post about how automative electronics work and without coming right out and saying so, seems to discredit Gilbert's work and the ABC report.

"It's clear that [Gilbert] 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," the Autoblog post says.

Here's my bottom line: as someone in the market for a new or one or two year-old vehicle, I would stay away from Toyotas for the moment. There's just too much he said, she said and I have little confidence that for all the media reports and Toyota press statements that we are any closer to the truth.

And what's truth when it comes to something as cryptic as proprietary automotive electronics? The truth about what causes the unintended acceleration and any confidence in a effective remedy to fix it remains elusive. To be fair, the media is stirring the pot, too.

I've always liked Toyotas. Our 1998 Sienna minivan served us well as out kids grew up. What's more, Consumer Reports whose ratings I've always trusted has ranked Toyotas at the top for decades. I wonder, though: where was Consumer Reports on unintended acceleration problem? Good topic for a susequent post.

What do you think?

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure