If No Defect in Toyotas, Was It a Conspiracy?

Five months after the nation was gripped with fears about Prius brakes failing to engage and runaway hybrids flying out of control, federal investigators said Tuesday that driver error—not electronics—is to blame in a majority of safety cases they probed.

The preliminary findings were presented at a briefing of House Energy and Commerce Committee members, conducted by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s David Strickland.

Representatives of the NHTSA told members of Congress that brakes were simply not applied in 35 of the 58 cases they reviewed. The findings are based on black box data taken from vehicles.

Toyota said its own findings show that after “more than 4,000 on-site vehicle inspections, in no case have we found electronic throttle controls to be a cause of unintended acceleration.” Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including 6 million in the United States, for sudden acceleration issues.

The government results are not final or definitive, and critics are not convinced that the problem is resolved. Nonetheless, if further investigations continue to point to driver error rather than technical glitches, then it begs the question: What caused all the uproar?

Conspiracy Theorists, Start Your Engines

While it’s certain that at least a few accidents occurred and people were injured, the full story of Toyota’s safety issues, from late 2009 through early 2010, is waiting to be told. Many theories come up at the company watercooloer or in casual dinner conversation: Did bankrupt U.S. car companies have a hand in knocking down Toyota’s previously stellar safety record? Did autoworker unions fan the flames? Why did media organizations run headlines and broadcast stories before investigating the most outlandish stories, like the San Diego Prius runaway in March? Is the public’s insatiable appetite for 24/7 sensationalism at the heart of the problem?

It’s doubtful that we’ll ever hear the full story, if it could ever be told with all its psycho-social complexities. Again, the investigations exonerating Toyota are only preliminary. (And certainly Toyota fumbled on its handling of the problem.) Yet, the damage is done to the Toyota’s brand, which had come to mean safe and green cars.

This, along with its reluctance to embrace plug-in technology, have leveled the playing field for the other major global automakers to step in with the most advanced high-tech eco-friendly car technologies. At the same time, the situation probably had some role in Toyota’s decision to team up with Tesla to produce electric cars.

The crises has created opportunities. That might be the only silver lining in the dark cloud of controversy.

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  • Jay Leuthold

    Simple answer:
    If you had caused an accident, would you not rather blame it on somebody else than on yourself? Particularly, if there are chances to make a fortune by playing this “law suit” game?

  • PaulRivers

    I’m not saying the incident may not have gotten rather overblown (as the media tends to do), but in many ways nothing has changed.

    At this point, everyone will want to feel better, and they will come out and say “we didn’t find anything”.

    But it’s not a surprise they didn’t find anything – if some glitch was giving the computer bad data, it’s not a surprise that the black box was also recording bad data. There simply is no way to say for sure, after the fact, whether there was unintended acceleration or not.

    One good thing – this whole incident has probably caused nearly everyone to add a “brake override” system to their cars, a simple safety feature cars should have had in the first place. Unintended acceleration has happened for years with purely mechanical cars (something in the carburetor gets physically stuck open – yes I know a modern car doesn’t have one, but it still has a number of mechanical parts that cause the car to accelerate) and there’s no reason why cars with electronics haven’t had this.

  • A Prius lover, with a problem

    Despite the evidence that Toyota presents, my 2005 Prius definately has a problem with unintended acceleration. I reported it to Toyota, but never heard back from them. Luckily, though it has happened dozens of times, it never lasts for more than a second or so. We finally were able to pinpoint when it seems to happen – when we are going over bumpy roads, with potholes or other damage to the tar, and hit the brakes, the car momentarily will accelerate, then the brakes kick in. It was frightening the first few times that it happened, but then we got used to it.

    I still love my Prius, and will buy another one when this one wears out (120K and going strong!). But I wish that Toyota would acknowledge that there is a problem (and admit that they don’t know why if that is the case).

  • calvin

    It’s possible that the black box data (I’m really glad they finally have these in cars now; they should be mandatory) could be wrong, but it really depends on the nature of the bug and the implementation of the black box; hopefully the NHTSA knows what they’re doing and took this into account.

    It’s still likely that:
    – there is a minor problem in a small number of vehicles
    – most reported cases were actually due to human error (the case in most vehicular accidents)
    – the media totally blew things out of proportion and ran with bad information (as has happened time and time again)

    Really, the news stations should have:
    1.) dug up the accident data (e.g. accident report + black box data);
    2.) found an auto engineering expert from the NHTSA, IIHS, ASRI, or VTTI;
    3.) had them analyze the data to verify the claims of malfunction;
    4.) THEN report on the findings, whether they indicate a vehicle problem or not.

    But all of this takes work and time. Most journalists are just too lazy to do legit background research and lack journalistic integrity. They just want to be the first to break a sensational story. And then after that the media turns into an echo chamber.

  • GreasyMonkeyWrench

    That “acceleration” when braking over a bumpy road is the hybrid car momentarily cutting out the regenerative braking. It is NOT ACCELERATION. What you are feeling is a momentary loss of braking.

    This happens with ABS brakes too, by the way. NOT Unique to the Prius!

    The reason why Toyota engineers programmed the hybrid computer to momentarily cut out the regenerative brake when going over a bumpy road is to protect the car’s electric motor (being used as a generator while braking) from being overloaded and getting burned out.

    You can actually bypass the regenerative braking cutout and immediately engage the hydraulic disc brakes by pressing on the brake pedal HARDER. Past 50% application of the pedal, the disc brakes will engage.

    This is a predictable behavior in the Prius that you can learn to compensate for. NOT an issue if you understand what is going on and how to deal with it.

  • DownUnder

    A Prius lover,
    Is your car in the list of recalled Prius for Brake Software Fix?

    Thanks for your post.

  • calvin

    GreasyMonkeyWrench: can you provide a link for that?

    It seems like a semi-plausible explanation, but I don’t understand how a bumpy road could cause an electric motor from being overloaded.

    From what I’ve read there is a brake-override system in place, but it works as follows:
    – if there is moderate pressure on the brakes
    – and the accelerator is depressed more than 50%
    – the brake override engages and shuts off the engine

  • A Prius lover

    While this sounds reasonable, I don’t thinkthis is caused by a momentary cutoff of regenerative braking. The car actually rushes forward (not just doesn’t respond to the brakes), then after a second or two, the brakes kick in. I’ve had a number of other cars with ABS, and never had this problem before.

  • PriusOwner

    I have frequently experienced a sudden change in braking intensity when going over bumps or rough road at slower speeds in my Prius. This could be felt as “acceleration” since the felt sense of being pulled forward slackens abruptly, but not entirely (the friction brakes are still working). Pushing the brake pedal a little harder swiftly compensates. I have never noticed this problem while braking at higher speeds.

    My understanding is that the main traction motor freewheels, so to speak, when encountering a sudden externally caused change in velocity in order to avoid damaging the transaxle. If the force is too sudden or extreme, the Power Split Device (essentially a planetary gear set) could be damaged. The motor cuts out briefly to avoid transmitting the impact of the sudden velocity change to the PSD. It does this during traction control, as well, resulting sometimes in unintended deceleration! This protectiveness suggests a certain fragility of the PSD. I haven’t yet found a link to support this notion, however, and I can’t remember where I read it. But I agree that burning out the motor seems unlikely.

    The computer is supposed to compensate for regen dropping out by increasing friction brake pressure, but it doesn’t always succeed in matching the difference fast enough to avoid detection.

    A possibly related factor is that reports of **accidents** resulting from alleged unintended acceleration occur overwhelming (>80%, if I recall correctly — See The Truth About Cars web site on the whole Toyota Unintended Acceleration subject) in parking lots, ie rather low speeds. Only a few report at highway speeds. And it is at lower speeds that the braking discontinuity tends to occur. So possibly that is part of it. The rest is most likely caused by people pressing the go pedal instead of the brake. See TTAC again for reference to some studies that show poor awareness by some people of leg and foot positioning, esp when turning the head to one side.

  • bskija

    Folks: I intend to buy Toyota vehicles until my intelligence tells me there is a safer, better buy than Toyota. I will use magazines and bean counters that evaluate vehicles that are not beholden to any manufacturer of vehicles. In a hypothetical example, let’s say you own a magazine and had a million dollar contract with an automobile maker to advertise their product. Without that million dollar contract would you knock that company if it meant you would go out of business?
    BS from the media or the government concerning automobiles will go in one ear and out the other.