March 28, 2010
The Toyota Problem: Is It Driver Error?By Danny Huddleston
Toyota chased General Motors for years until finally passing the General to become the world's largest automaker, and now...disaster. Reports of runaway Toyotas are all over the news. The ghost of 1980's Audi is haunting Toyota. Now, we have to find out if the problem is with the car or the driver.
Walter Olson at National Review and Richard A. Schmidt at the New York Times surprisingly have the same opinion: They both believe it is primarily driver error. They blame the runaway car problem on older drivers. The over-60 generation is taking it on the chin this year -- first the threat of death panels and cuts in medicare, and now this.
In fact, I believe that driver error is the least likely cause of most of these accidents. I agree with both authors that the majority of unintended acceleration claims against Audi in the mid-eighties was more than likely thanks to driver error. The sensationalized "60 Minutes" story almost put Audi out of business. However, that doesn't mean that we are seeing the same situation now.
Elderly drivers stepping on the wrong pedal by mistake is just one possibility that investigators are looking into. The list of possible culprits includes sticking accelerator pedals, out-of-place floor mats, a computer glitch, and even cosmic rays. Let's examine each of these potential causes one by one.
But first, just to remind everyone of the seriousness of the issue, here is one of the more lamentable stories from channel 6 in San Diego:
If we blame driver error for this horrific accident, then we would have to believe that a highway patrolman with almost twenty years of experience couldn't tell the difference between the accelerator pedal and the brake pedal, and apparently he held his foot on the wrong one long enough for the car to reach over 100 mph. And this was presumably after he had already maneuvered the vehicle out of the dealership parking lot and onto the main road, enough time to become familiar with the position of the pedals. I think it unlikely that a California Highway Patrol officer who spent thousands of hours in his patrol car would make that mistake.
Toyota has admitted that there could be a problem with the floor mats and the accelerator pedal in some of their cars. The engineers at Toyota included a "friction device" on the accelerator pedal to decrease play and provide a better "feel" for the driver. The effort to perfect this simple device may have resulted in tragedy for many drivers. Here is Toyota's statement as reported in Automotive Fleet:
Toyota has also acknowledged that there is a problem with the brakes on some 2010 models of the Prius, "a software problem that can cause a brief loss of braking." While apparently not dangerous, it can be disconcerting for a driver to lose braking even for a few seconds. The significance of this admission is just to remind everyone that the problem is not always driver error.
Federal regulators are even looking into the possibility that cosmic rays could interfere with the many computer systems on these cars. The Free Press reports that "an anonymous tipster whose complaint prompted regulators to look at the issue said the design of Toyota's microprocessors, memory chips and software could make them more vulnerable than those of other automakers." As you can see, driver error is just one of many possibilities.
Celebrities are not immune, either. Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, had a problem with his Prius when it "started accelerating on its own -- to as much as 97 mph." He tried to tell Toyota and NHTSA about the problem, "but he grew frustrated when no one would listen." Steve is 59 -- maybe he is one of those senior citizens who always push the wrong pedal.
Now that we've determined that there may be mechanical or computer problems with some Toyota cars, the question arises: What should you do if it happens to you? Remember, even with a sticking accelerator, the driver still has options, but he or she has to react quickly and make the right choices.
The first reaction you might have is: Why not just hit the brakes? It is true that the brakes on today's cars will "by and large" stop a vehicle even with the throttle wide open if you push down hard on the brake pedal and not release it. Car and Driver did a test to verify this: "With the Camry's throttle pinned while going 70 mph, the brakes easily overcame all 268 horsepower straining against them and stopped the car in 190 feet."
However, this test involved the expert drivers at Car and Driver. You would probably not get the same result with the average driver in a panic situation, as this technical article in Import Car explains:
We can't be sure that the average driver in a panic situation would react the same as the experts at Car and Driver. If the driver is not applying the brakes properly, then the speed will be reduced too slowly, and the brakes could have time to overheat and fail.
A shift to neutral is your best bet, but who can say what's going through a driver's mind as he or she is weaving through traffic at high speed with both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel? More from Car and Driver:
With the brake pedal vibrating as the ABS kicks in and the transmission making a "disturbing grinding sound" when placed in park, it's easy to see how the average driver could panic and release the brakes or take the transmission out of park. Some drivers fear that if they throw the lever in park while traveling at high speed, the vehicle will flip over.
Turning off the ignition is also problematic, especially if you have one of the newer vehicles with a push-to-start button:
There are many questions that need to be answered before we start blaming elderly drivers for these tragic accidents. We should let the investigations play out before we jump to conclusions.
And if it happens to you? The best thing to do is to grab the gear shift lever and put it into neutral or park and don't worry about the noise from the transmission and the motor, then apply the brakes, and your vehicle should come to a stop.
Danny Huddleston began his career in automotive sales and repair in 1976.