*UPDATED: After writing this yesterday, I came upon an interesting blog in the Washington Post by Frank Ahrens entitled, “Why it’s so hard for Toyota to find out what’s wrong with its vehicles.” The piece has to do with how engineers try to understand why mechanical failures occur and how software glitches complicate things.
If you put a lot of parts together to form a complex electro-mechanical machine and make it talk to itself via software, it can behave, sometimes, in ways you cannot anticipate. It can fail for reasons you cannot anticipate.
We also got a lengthy comment on these problems from Randy, a regular reader who took time to discuss some of these issues and explore the relationship of driver error to unintended acceleration. I urge you to read his remarks.
I want to follow up on some assertions I made last week concerning electronics and the “untamed beast” that may be part of the modern automobile. The runaway acceleration issue is still on the front burner for the general media, and for those of us in the industry media it seems to be unfolding from two points of view.
First are those who claim merely to report the news—outfits like AutoWeek and the Detroit News (“recall issues persist”) that have a vested interest in keeping the stories alive—and that group includes Toyota’s competitors, of course. Ongoing congressional hearings and investigations by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and others (Dimitrios Biller, the L.A. Times, et al.) provide constant fuel for the fires of the controversy.
Then we have the writers, this one included, who attempt to explore a situation and give it a perspective—or make a point. I tried to say last week that there have been and will always be issues with electronics in cars, problems that can’t be easily explained, and people will die because of them.
I just don’t see how one can dispute this. It is in the nature of complex machines to fail. We do all in our power to keep the failure rate at an acceptable, Six-Sigma level. The fact that bad, poorly trained drivers contribute far more accidents and deaths to the horrendous totals is quite another point. Dealing with that is a massive, separate problem from dealing with runaway acceleration caused by what appears to be the “ghost in the machine.”
Some car media people have tried to confuse the two, saying there is no comparison between the relatively few numbers killed in runaway cars and the highway carnage caused by bad driving. That seems to be the point made in this video.
If you got all the way through this, you learned that these two donkeys haven’t the sense to distinguish between what is human error and what may be a serious safety defect. It would seem the first job of Congress or any investigative agency to make that distinction. The Audi controversy dragged on for years because it couldn’t do so. This one may follow suit, though let’s hope not.
So far, NHTSA “has linked 52 deaths to Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems,” and the stories continue to be quoted in blogs and the major media. Despite the claims of Toyota and others that electronics cannot be at fault, they don’t refute the stories people tell about their out-of-control cars.
Don’t blame the media for pursuing these stories. Blame them for confusing the issue of who and what is at fault.
Tell us if you ever experienced runaway acceleration in a car (and lived to tell about it).