Electronic throttles kill because they hate

The LA times takes an extensive look at Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem, and some findings certainly point to the automaker’s drive by wire system.

Some snips from the article:

Eric Weiss was stopped at a busy Long Beach intersection last month when he said his 2008 Toyota Tacoma pickup unexpectedly started accelerating, forcing him to stand on the brakes to keep the bucking truck from plowing into oncoming cars.

Toyota Motor Corp. says the gas pedal design in Weiss’ truck and more than 4 million other Toyota and Lexus vehicles makes them vulnerable to being trapped open by floor mats, and on Wednesday, it announced a costly recall to fix the problem.

But Weiss is convinced his incident wasn’t caused by a floor mat. He said he removed the mats in his truck months earlier on the advice of his Toyota dealer after his truck suddenly accelerated and rear-ended a BMW.

Amid widening concern over unintended acceleration events, including an Aug. 28 crash near San Diego that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and his family, Toyota has repeatedly pointed to “floor mat entrapment” as the problem.

But accounts from motorists such as Weiss, interviews with auto safety experts and a Times review of thousands of federal traffic safety incident reports all point to another potential cause: the electronic throttles that have replaced mechanical systems in recent years.

The Times found that complaints of sudden acceleration in many Toyota and Lexus vehicles shot up almost immediately after the automaker adopted the so-called drive-by-wire system over the last decade. That system uses sensors, microprocessors and electric motors — rather than a traditional link such as a steel cable — to connect the driver’s foot to the engine.

For some Toyota models, reports of unintended acceleration increased more than fivefold after drive-by-wire systems were adopted, according to the review of thousands of consumer complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The average number of sudden-acceleration complaints involving the Tacoma jumped more than 20 times, on average, in the three years after Toyota’s introduction of drive-by-wire in these trucks in 2005. Increases were also found on the hybrid Prius, among other models.

“With the electronic throttle, the driver is not really in control of the engine,” said Antony Anderson, a Britain-based electrical engineering consultant who investigates electrical failures and has testified in sudden-acceleration lawsuits. “You are telling the computer, will you please move the throttle to a certain level, and the computer decides if it will obey you.”

Although Toyota says it knows of no electronic defects that would cause a vehicle to surge out of control, it has issued at least three technical service bulletins to its dealers warning of problems with the new electronic throttles in the 2002 and 2003 Camry.

The throttle systems on six-cylinder engines can cause the vehicle to “exhibit a surging during light throttle input at speeds between 38 mph and 42 mph,” according to one of the bulletins that was published by Alldata, a vehicle information company. The solution provided to dealers was to reprogram the engine control module.

The electronic throttle was first introduced by BMW in 1988.Like a conventional throttle system, it controls the flow of air into the engine. Today, every new Toyota vehicle sold in the U.S. uses drive-by-wire. The systems cost less to install on the assembly line and increase the efficiency of the vehicle.

To run these advanced throttle systems, each automaker develops its own electronic control modules and proprietary software that has unique control logic. The operations of the systems are opaque to consumers, as are potential failures.

In a worst-case scenario, consultant Anderson says, stray electrical voltages, electromagnetic signals or bad sensor readings could cause an undetectable error within the car’s network of up to 70 microprocessors, setting off an unpredictable chain of reactions. One of those, he said, could be a command to completely open the throttle.

Texas resident Thomas Ritter, who has a mechanical engineering degree and spent 15 years as an engineer at General Motors, Chrysler and other auto and truck makers as well as 25 years designing oil exploration equipment, believes Toyota’s acceleration problem lies in the electronics.

Last July, his wife was driving her 2006 Lexus ES 330 with four grandchildren near Houston when it accelerated out of control. To avoid a wreck, she crossed four lanes of traffic before smashing into a masonry sign, totaling the car and deploying the air bags. No one was seriously injured.

“When you think about a machine operated by computers, almost anything can go wrong,” Ritter said.

Toyota announced Wednesday that it had developed a series of fixes to prevent floor mats from causing sudden acceleration.

In 4.26 million vehicles in the U.S. and Canada, Toyota said it would cut off a segment of the accelerator pedal and then later install a newly designed pedal. It also will add a so-called smart pedal, software that cuts engine power any time both the accelerator pedal and brake pedal are depressed at the same time.

Such software has already been adopted as a safety feature by a number of automakers, including Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, BMW, Nissan and Chrysler, the companies said.

Independent auto safety experts said that though all of Toyota’s fixes would help reduce the problem, it has not gotten to the root cause.

“These incidents are coming in left and right where you can’t blame the floor mats,” said Sean Kane, president of the consulting firm Safety Research and Strategies. “So they are chipping away at a problem that is widespread and complicated without having to unravel a root cause that could be very expensive.”

The whole article is worth a read. Especially if you own a Toyota/Lexus, or considering owning one. While surely this is not a extremely common event, the number one selling car maker in the world having a potentiality fatal problem with their throttle control system is a big deal. The insulting part here is that Toyota appears to have been hiding evidence for years and is trying to blame the cheapest easiest fix.

I’m sure there have been cases of the evil killer floormats being the cause, just as sure as I am there have been cases of 70+ y/o’s mashing the gas pedal of their Lexus instead of the brake, but even a slight chance of your car’s computer rendering it out of control is a very dire problem.

What I don’t get is the last bit about the smart pedal thing. If other, smaller automakers have already implemented this simple safety feature ahead of time, why not Toyota?

Probably time to just change the title to Toyota’s kill because they hate…

-Dave out


8 thoughts on “Electronic throttles kill because they hate

  1. Such software has already been adopted as a safety feature by a number of automakers, including (German), (German), (German), (German), (Japanese/Ghosn) and (Zombie/seat belts will kill you), the companies said.

  2. Funny. I’d think you’d be all over Toyota for being unwilling to admit there may be a much more serious problem here. Or for not implementing a fairly simple safety feature that other companies (regardless of country of origin) have already put in place.

    Is this the same Mike that felt so strongly that Mini needed to “fix” those long tale pipes, or do you just prefer to play devils advocate for whatever I post? I think I’ve proven that before, don’t remember what I posted though…

    Ah! Here it is. This was posted by me to exclusively test your devils advocate…ness

  3. I figured I was picking on them too much so I never posted this one:


    “According to a report from The Safety Record, on December 29, 2009, the driver of a 2007 Toyota Avalon experienced a bizarre case of sudden and unintended acceleration while driving on the highway, just miles from a local Toyota dealer. The driver managed to switch the vehicle between Neutral and Drive multiple times, while en route to the dealer in order to show the dealer the problem as it was still occurring.

    The driver was able to reach the dealer, place the vehicle into neutral, and allow it to continue operating at wide open throttle. The dealer sent out a tech who verified that the floor mat was removed, and pushing the gas pedal had no effect on the acceleration. The dealer was unable to stop the wide open throttle and was forced to shut the vehicle off.”

  4. The strategy of cutting the power when the brake and gas are pushed simultaneously is not the answer. That eliminates the ability to “power brake”. Ask any serious driver about that. And if the engine is switched off in an emergency situation, the vacuum assist dies and you have no brakes after a couple of pushes. I say, BAN ELECTRONIC THROTTLES! Mercedes now has brake by wire. That’s even scarier.

  5. Not sure what doing a brake stand (aka brake torque or power braking) has to do with slowing down your car, but yes you cannot do one with this system in place. However, most every day drivers and new car buyers (read: the group a car company needs to impress more than anything) don’t even know/care what that is anyway. Hell, I haven’t done one since I was like 19 years old.

    With the standard power assist brakes (that can over power the engine at WOT in most normal cars) your brakes will still over heat at highway speeds after a short time, and become useless.

    The throttle cut is a fail safe, not a solution. There are dangers to it, such as loss of power brake assist and power steering. But any real driver should be able to pull over to a safe stop coasting in neutral with no power.

    I do agree that drive by wire is largely unnecessary in normal passenger cars, but it is cheaper to produce than a traditional throttle setup and squeaks out a very tiny improvement in MPG. So they are here to stay. Toyota just needs to un-fuck their’s.

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