Toyota Testimony Tells No Tales, Titillates Nobody

February 24th, 2010

Bosch D-Jetronic Electronic Fuel Injection Control Unit (ECU)

The rhetoric yesterday in the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings was that everyone is on the side of safety and getting to the bottom of things. Well, what if there were, as I suspect, no bottom? What if Toyota, instead of stonewalling and hiding, really doesn’t know what causes the acceleration problem, even if they won’t admit that?

I heard most of the blather yesterday, with the company’s James Lentz saying it was not the computers, but they would continue to investigate, it was the floor mats, blah blah. Akio Toyoda today has repeated the same line, with profuse apologies, and this thing will take years to unravel, if it ever does. There will be lawsuits galore, more recalls, finger-pointing at NHTSA and others, and no definitive studies will emerge. The electronics will have won.

We all mostly welcome the fact that computers are taking over our cars. We have yet to accept the consequences of that fact. By going whole-hog electronic, auto companies have willingly introduced a whole new set of unknowns and variables—which they have yet to learn how to control.

There’s a wonderful line in a Carlos Fuentes novel I’m reading. Listening to the pulsing sound of a locomotive speeding through the night, the narrator calls its rhythm “simultaneously spirited and destructive like that of all machines.” The fact that so many of us live our lives around the automobile is to acknowledge daily how “spirited” it makes us feel and rarely to acknowledge how destructive a force it can be.

The automobile is still—and now with electronics, it’s even more so—a beast untamed, killing us apparently at random in large numbers. And also in small numbers, when it accelerates like a crazy horse that cannot be reigned in, out of control and moved by electronic whimsy. If you think Akio Toyoda and his crew of synchronized robots can figure out that mystery, you have more faith in the wonders of lean production than I do.

So the charade in Washington will continue because no one would dare suggest we really don’t understand all there is to know about electronic engine management. No one would dare to suggest, humbly, that there is still a great deal we don’t know about its operations… and its aberrations.

And so a great company has lost its credibility. While others have lost their lives.

How can the auto industry admit its flaws without opening itself up to more lawsuits? Give us your opinion on that one and win a job in Toyota’s Legal Department.

—jgoods

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  1. jgoods
    March 2nd, 2010 at 11:41 | #1

    @randy

    @Bryce
    Awright, you guys, no one is denying the importance of driver training. In fact, I have written on this before and would agree with you both that the inexperience, poor judgment, stupid behavior and inattention behind the wheel is the major source of accidents, injuries and deaths.

    That doesn’t negate in any way what I said about electronics in cars and the fact that the auto companies have much to learn about how computers can go haywire. The Toyota investigations are going to be the tip of the iceberg here, and I will bet you this goes on for years.

  2. February 27th, 2010 at 15:41 | #2

    Right on Randy there are some incredibly stupid people around who somehow gained a drivers licence. All drivers should have mandatory time on a low traction surface or skidpan to learn some car control before passing a licence and cruise control should be unavailable. Too many drivers set cruise then. chat on their cellphone,eat,drink etc and ignore the traffic then its minor things suddenly become huge emergencies due to inattention.

  3. randy
    February 27th, 2010 at 09:19 | #3

    jgoods, you usually follow a very reasonable tact, but you are out of your depth in this area. What is killing people by the hundreds of thousands isn’t the “beast untamed,” its the driver of the beast.

    The latter part of my automotive career was doing systems safety for a major parts supplier, and I can tell you that there is a rigorous and well-defined process for designing and validating these components. That doesn’t mean that a company like Toyota can’t take shortcuts or fail to place systems safety at the heart of their engineering process, as it appears at this point.

    But the real reason for most of the accidents involving runaway acceleration is poorly trained drivers who are unable to regain control of their vehicle, which is as simple as shifting the transmission into neutral. While I can see situations where the driver can’t react fast enough, the vast majority of accidents are caused by the drivers lack of emergency driving skills. That’s especially tragic when you consider the case of the police officer (who should have been a highly trained driver) who seemed to have a lot of time to shift to neutral and brake the car, but ended up crashing and killing everyone in the vehicle.

    That doesn’t excuse Toyota, who seems to have mastered build quality but not systems safety. But the skill level of drivers around the world is atrocious, and that’s killing other drivers and pedestrians by the hundreds of thousands. Frankly, that’s something that we CAN control with better driver training, but apparently don’t want to.

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