Toyota's Downfall

Sitting in the living room eating my dinner when the news comes back from commercial. Another story of a Prius owner whose accelerator got stuck and took him on a wild ride. James Sikes was out on Inerstate 8 in San Diego County, minding his own business when he moved to pass a slower vehicle. That's when it all started. The accelerator in the Prius he was driving became stuck and he soon realized he was in real trouble.

James dialed 911 and informed CHP dispatch that he was unable to regain control of the vehicle and needed help. The operators tried to talk him through how to disengage the stuck accelerator but he ended up having to put the phone aside because he could no longer maintain control with one hand. The car was refusing to comply with the brake and James was flying down the freeway at around 90mph when CHP finally showed up.

The CHP officer who gave his statement to channel 9 reporters said himself that he could smell the smoking remains of the car's braking system, and could visibly see that Mr. Sikes was doing all he could to try and bring the car to a halt. CHP managed to get Sikes to engage the emergency brake and then shut the engine off once the car got down below 55 mph. Once the engine was off, the car coasted to a stop on the side of the freeway without further incident.

When reporters spoke to Sikes, he indicated to them that he'd already had the car in to the dealer for the recall notice and they supposedly fixed the issue. Needless to say, he'll be back to give them a piece of his mind in the morning. Who could blame him! Toyota has said they are dispatching a specialist to inspect the car. Hopefully they do a better job this time than they did before.

This isn't the only major incident like this recently either. I can't find any links to it online, but a couple of weeks ago the KFI talk show host on the air at the time was talking to a woman who had a similar incident to Mr. Sikes.

She was driving on one of our freeways and her accelerator became stuck. After an equally useless effort to mash the brakes to make it stop, she used her emergency brake and nothing happened. She got even more desperate and pushed the transmission into neutral, thinking that would stop the car eventually even if it blew the engine. Unfortunately this did not happen. Much to her surprise, the car continued to accelerate. By this time she was in excess of 100mph and decided to try one more thing that should have ended it. She threw the gearshift into reverse.

Conventional wisdom says at this point the transmission should have been shattered from the sudden reversal and the car would eventually come to a halt. This was not the case. Instead, the car rapidly slowed and then accelerated - in reverse. So now picture driving backward down a busy California freeway at insane speeds of almost 100mph in a Prius. The woman figured she was about to die and had called her husband on the car's built in phone to say her good byes. Somewhere along the way, she slammed the car into the center divider of the freeway and the force of the impact was enough to disengage the transmission and bring the car to a stop.

Her husband arrived shortly after, and a tow truck pulled up a bit later to remove the wreckage. In the process of loading the car onto the flatbed, the tow operator asked the husband to put the car into neutral so he could pull it up. Not thinking about it, he did, and the car's engine tried to start back up and caused it to jump! The woman now has signed affidavits from both her husband and the tow truck driver that the incident happened exactly as she described.

Toyota has commented in both cases that the scenario is impossible. They insist the car's circuitry will not allow these situations to happen. The only problem is, Mr. Sikes has a CHP report to back up his claims, along with news footage of part of it. The other woman may not have that, but she certainly has the tow truck operator's statement and a wrecked car to show for it. Digging a bit further, Google reveals that there have been 56 reported deaths all attributed to accelerator problems in the Prius and other models over the last FIVE years.

So I have to ask. Is this the downfall of Toyota? After the recall over the braking systems and stuck accelerators they are still having issues, and there's plenty of buzz about other problems as well. Toyota used to make great cars and you'd have been hard pressed to find better other than Honda. This issue will haunt this company for years, if not decades to come.
.........................
"It is pointless to resist, my son." -- Darth Vader
"Resistance is futile." -- The Borg
"Mother's coming for me in the dragon ships. I don't like these itchy clothes, but I have to wear them or it frightens the fish." -- Thurindil

Well. I guess that's that then.

       
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Posted on Mar 8, 2010 11:53 pm by Samson in: | 37 comment(s) [Closed]
Comments
You know, my father used to tell me that the most critical part of a car to ensure was working properly was your brakes because if anything else was broken you might not be able to go, but if your brakes went you couldn't stop. Sounds like Toyota's found a way to make that potential crisis even worse. I don't know if this counts as their downfall, but it certainly gives plenty of motivation to buy a car that wasn't made by them. I've driven Toyotas in the past and been surprised at how nice they were, but I've never owned one. Currently the Nissan I do own has a recall for a gas gauge sensor that can erroneously show you still have gas when it's actually pushing empty and I gather Nissan has another recall for a brake issue that doesn't affect my model/year. Recently I saw that GM had a major recall as well. I'd say it's looking like Toyota may be in trouble but it's the parts makers who are screwing everybody at this point. :(

       
Two thoughts:

1. Kind of surprising, considering the general greatness of every Toyota I've ever driven, including my first car, a 15 year old '84 Tercel that I ran until it died of old age. Too, sort of surprising given what I know of Toyota quality management and company culture. Alas.

2. Good thing it's only 56 over 5 years. Still more than it should be (which number is zero, of course), but at least we can not have to live in fear that any given Toyota will leap out and kill us all.

       
Yes, it's actually quite surprising since Toyota's past record on quality and safety have both been top notch. My mom had a Corolla that drove for almost 300,000 miles before finally dying. However that all appears to have changed suddenly. Certainly gives one pause. I wouldn't have bought one of their hybrids anyway. You couldn't pay me enough to drive a neutered vehicle.

Really, the biggest benefactors of all this mess are going to be the American companies. I've already been hearing plenty of folks claiming they won't by foreign next time. I doubt I'd be one of them if I could even afford such fantasies right now because I'm pretty happy with my Acura and would buy another without question. At least until we start hearing news about how Acura is getting eaten by recalls :)

Right, so I figured this would happen. It's amazing what some high profile news coverage will do. That's a pretty wide ranging recall. Five whole model years. Also take note of the bit at the bottom. You'd think after having a Lexus get its accelerator stuck and burning 4 people to death they'd have acted on it then. Goes to show, even a horrible tragedy isn't always enough to provoke the proper response.

Also, re: culture. If your culture is to own up to your mistakes, staging technical demonstrations in an attempt to prove everyone wrong despite the evidence reeks of dishonorable to me.

       
Edited by Samson on Mar 9, 2010 12:22 pm
The trouble with the case of the Lexus, is that one car malfunctioning is not statistically significant, neither is 10 cars or 50 cars for that matter when you are talking about hundreds of thousands of that exact same model being sold world wide each year. Take the Prius as another example, over 1 million units shipped, you could have a few thousand of these self destruct and it would not be significant statistically, especially when determining the exact point of failure is difficult.

Now, im not making excuses for Toyota, because their failures go deeper than just the statistics involved and became systematic in covering up the failures. For me, I think that no car should have fly by wire for the 3 most critical systems in a vehicle, acceleration, breaking and steering, but if they do use fly by wire, then they need to have fail over systems in triplicate just like on a modern aircraft, there should be no excuses and government needs to legislate about this.

       
Well if you're going to take it from the cold realm of statistics, sure, 56 cars malfunctioning out of millions is nothing. The problem with dealing with things that way is that it ignores the fact that 56 people have been killed by a known defect in the system that appears to go beyond just the Prius model line. With Toyota actively attempting to cover this up, you'll forgive me if I don't buy into the statistically insignificant excuse. 56 people are not statistically insignificant and the company needs to be held accountable for that.

I'm not 100% sure what you mean by "fly by wire" but yes, many cars sold around the world have what we call "cruise control". This allows you to set a certain speed and allow the car to do what it needs to in order to maintain that speed. No cruise control system I'm aware of will allow the car to accelerate out of control by its own choice. The systems are designed to disengage when the brake is applied by the driver and you actively have to reset it in most cases. What we have here is not the same thing. We have Prius cars that are deciding to accelerate without driver input of any sort and creating a hazard for everyone around them when it happens.

While I do agree that Toyota needs to fix this - and fast - I'm afraid I need to stop short of new Federal legislation to resolve this. We already have enough consumer protection laws on the books to deal with the issue. The NTSB can issue a mandatory recall of all models on the road, and they can nail Toyota with massive fines as punishment. If it is found that they acted with criminal intent to cover things up, they can be charged under existing criminal laws. In the end though, the worst we could ever do to them as a company is bar them from doing business in the US because Toyota is outside our legal jurisdiction unless Japan chooses to cooperate.

       
Gormican [Anon] said:
Comment #6 Mar 9, 2010 4:42 pm
Honestly as harsh as it sounds I say anyone who doesn't simply shift into neutral is a victim of darwinism not faulty electronics.

       
Maybe you missed the second story in the post, but the woman who ended up slamming hers into the center divider BACKWARDS tried to shift not only into neutral but into reverse as well. There are other reports of similar problems. Either the transmission won't go into neutral while this is happening or the car continues to accelerate after moving the shift lever. As I just said to The_Fury, this isn't a simple case of cruise control gone wild.

BTW, you lazy pixie, why don't you register an account? :P

       
Edited by Samson on Mar 9, 2010 4:53 pm

Honestly as harsh as it sounds I say anyone who doesn't simply shift into neutral is a victim of darwinism not faulty electronics.


And what if your electronically controlled gearbox will not allow you to shift to neutral, or any other gear for that matter, your still toast.

@Samson: By fly by wire, i mean purely electronic means of controlling aspects of the vehicle. Once upon a time the accelerator pedal was connected by a cable or mechanical linkage system to the butterfly valve that controlled fuel flow into the engine, sure they may sometime have stuck, but you could put your foot under the peddle and lift up if that was the case and unjam it. Same goes with breaks, they pushed directly on the master cylinder, now in some cars its all electronics controlling every aspect of breaking.

Nowdays many high end vehicles have entirely electronic ways of controlling fuel flow and fancy software to control it, so in the event of a failure you are dead, which is what has happened with the lexus, there is no over ride control and no backup system, couple that with an electronic push button ignition system, and you cant turn the vehicle off. A key should be mandatory, a simple mechanical device that can cut power to the engine in an emergency.

Toyota's designs are totally flawed, it made the assumption that its software was perfect, there were no backup systems and in the event of a failure, it did not default to engine stops and breaks are applied and there is no over ride ability.

       
Gotcha. I'm not aware of any models that are that electronically dependent, but I'm sure they exist.

I also hadn't even given thought to the whole push button start. Thinking back, I've been in a Prius before and that was the first thing I noticed. The driver didn't use a key to start the car. There's a push button thingy on the dash. I never really looked into it any further than that and I certainly hadn't considered that it wouldn't allow you to turn the engine off while in motion. Hell, I don't even know for sure if my Acura will allow me to kill the engine by turning the key off because I've never had to try.

It does use a key though, and all of the electronically assisted functions like the power steering, ABS brakes, and cruise control can be overridden and will function mechanically if those systems fail entirely. The hand brake is also a traditional mechanical cable attached to the brakes at the rear of the car so if I need to use it, it will stop eventually. Maybe my car isn't as advanced as the ones you're talking about :)

       
Gormican [Anon] said:
Comment #10 Mar 9, 2010 9:20 pm
pfft register? Ha too much work


Anyway yeah I'm not really trying to defend toyota. I'm not impressed with alot of the super electronically controlled cars these days. I like to have as much control as possible. I prefer manuals for instance. These stories of stuck throttles runaway cars have happened long before this but they're very rare and the outcome is always the same people slam the breaks in a panic and eventually crash.

The point is shifting into neutral will disengage the transmission. It CAN'T continue to accelerate. It also can't be shifted into reverse at those speeds. So her story doesn't make sense.

When a story doesn't make sense the answer is usually solved by examining human nature. She was panicked and scared so human nature tells us she's going to make mistakes. The emergency brake was on full and she was slamming the break. If she got the car into neutral it would come to a very very rapid stop. If you read her story carefully IT DID when she was trying to jam it into reverse. Once it was slow enough it would be able to go into reverse then it would begin accelerating in reverse.

So I think it's totally reasonable to say she was jamming the gear shift and the brake, got it into neutral, but in her panic managed to push it over into reverse.

That being said I'm still not a fan of these electric cars.

       
Wow, this one really flew away on me.. let's see if I can cover a summary response to everything I'd missed there...

Have to agree with Dwip, the Toyota cars I've experienced consistently surprised me pleasantly in the past. But 56 in 5 years is still 11.2/year average.

Unfortunately, The_Fury is right that the car manufacturers deal with statistics rather than people and even 50 dead people is statistically insignificant compared to hundreds of thousands (let alone millions) of owners of that model vehicle. One car malfunctioning, even when the malfunction causes the death of four people, is not enough to drive a recall of an entire model line. Maybe given the full circumstances it should be, but that's not how it really works.

I'll agree with Samson on the point of legislation, we've got more than enough legislation on the books already and Toyota's not an American company anyway so none of it really applies to them technically anyway. If anything, Japan could legislate something over this one and we, here in the U.S., need to eliminate (or at least consolidate) some of our existing legislation so that those who enforce the legislation can untie their hands from all the red tape.

Since I just spent three months effectively visiting with my father-in-law who is a master mechanic of Volvos, I can vouch that there are indeed cars that are basically entirely electronically controlled as The_Fury suggests. It's a scary proposition to think of such a system being in place without backups or overrides and not even set to automatically shut everything down and apply the brakes in the event of a system failure.

Gormicon, from what I gather about this whole Toyota deal, the problem seems likely that the accelerator, braking assist, ignition, and transmission are all electronically controlled and thus it's irrelevant whether she really put it in neutral or not before finally deciding to try reverse instead if the electronic transmission control unit ignored her gear shift lever. ...and registering is well worth it, you get to choose your own avatar , not be thought of as a semi-anonymous poster, can see some posts that you don't get to see as an anonymous visitor, bypass akismet, and your profile page shows your post count in relation to all the rest of us too. ;)

       
Gormican said:

The point is shifting into neutral will disengage the transmission. It CAN'T continue to accelerate. It also can't be shifted into reverse at those speeds. So her story doesn't make sense.


Well aside from her account of it, you also have the sworn statement from the tow truck operator on scene after she crashed the car into the center divider who said that the car attempted to restart its engine when the husband put it into neutral for him. I think we can all agree that this should be impossible, but in this case it didn't happen that way.

Keep in mind, the Pruis does not have an ignition key. The key is only used to unlock the doors. Once in, you push a button to start it and it essentially takes over from there. As Conner points out, the "gearshift" isn't even a true gearshift. It's a switch. So the car won't necessarily behave as expected in situations like this.

Now just imagine you're already panicked because the accelerator stuck. You threw it into neutral to stop it but that failed, and jamming it into reverse did nothing more than rapidly decelerate and then rapidly accelerate IN REVERSE. Can you honestly say she had time enough to think "hey, I'll jump out now" ? Besides, you clearly don't know the California freeway system all that well. She jumps, she dies, and her car is now careening out of control backward into traffic at high speeds. Tried stopping a bullet lately?

       
But, it's a Prius shaped bullet that came in a very pretty color. ;) :lol:

       
This is the reason why i drive a manual transmission vehicle, and not one of those fake, fancy formula 1 paddles behind the wheel clutch-less sudo automatic transmissions either. It has to have either a cable or hydraulically operated clutch and mechanical shift mechanism. Cars are dangerous weapons, and i don't ever want to be in one when its out of control and have no way of stopping it.

       
My mom has a 2007 Toyota-made car, and oh yes, the *entire* thing is computer-controlled, push-button start, etc. She just took it in to the dealer to get the computer fixed so that this can't happen to her. I sure hope it works, because around where I live, you don't drive on freeways, you drive on residential and commercial streets, and if the accelerator sticks, you've got no time to maneuver.

Also, in reply to Conner:
Toyota's not an American company anyway so none of it really applies to them technically anyway.


Yeah, but don't they have 14 plants in the US?

And Jason? Anyone who doesn't shift into neutral is just stupid? Come on, you ever heard of panicking?

       
Yes, they have 14 plants in the US. But the company itself which would have to be held criminally responsible is based in Japan and with that in mind, ultimately there's nothing we can do about it unless it can be proven that the fraud and cover-ups originated from one of those US plants.

       
The_Fury: Last time I bought a car the dealerships, while I was still shopping, shocked me by informing me ever so happily that a manual transmission was a significant extra charge on the few vehicles they still carry that are available in manual. I ended up settling, less than totally happily, for one of the automatic transmissions they've got now that include 1st through 4th on the gear shift instead of the old 1st & 2nd only and that has the 2/4 wheel drive as well.

Regina: A scary proposition, isn't it?
Like Samson said, the problem is that ultimately the company is still based in Japan so it's very unlikely to be the fault of someone in one of their American plants. Frankly, with all the publicity this one's gotten so far, I don't know that we want it to be proven that the blame somehow belongs to someone in an American plant at this point either. Yeah, it'd give us someone we could prosecute for it, but it'd also let Toyota, as a company, off the hook and give the world yet another reason to think badly of us. :(
I'll leave your last remark for Gormicon to explain himself, I think the rest of us have already given him enough grief over his remarks so far. ;)

       
For what's it worth, Gormicon, it appears that the plot behind at least the claims of Mr. James Sikes may be thickening a bit. I ran across this article on CNet about him today... it appears that he's had some [relatively] recent financial troubles and, while no one is accusing him outright of lying for the publicity or as grounds for a lawsuit against Toyota, they are very stringently questioning his motives and several car sites are questioning his actual story as well. I've not yet heard/seen anything anywhere pertaining to the second woman's tale though.

       
Conner said:

The_Fury: Last time I bought a car the dealerships, while I was still shopping, shocked me by informing me ever so happily that a manual transmission was a significant extra charge on the few vehicles they still carry that are available in manual. I ended up settling, less than totally happily, for one of the automatic transmissions they've got now that include 1st through 4th on the gear shift instead of the old 1st & 2nd only and that has the 2/4 wheel drive as well.


I have to agree that its strange, once upon a time a manual was always cheaper than an auto, they are cheaper to manufacture etc, must be economies of scale in operation here to make the more modern autos cheaper to buy than the manual. Unfortunately price is often a determinant in what we buy and a 1000 bucks difference in purchase price can mean the difference between getting finance and not getting finance. Mostly i buy smaller 4 cylinder vehicles and they typically come in manual with an auto option.

       
@Conner: I saw the same story on the Fox News ticker on TV. I think it's entirely irrelevant because he has the police officer as a witness who readily stated to the press that he could smell the brakes being fried and could see Sikes standing out of his seat in the car trying to bring it to a stop. Toyota is engaging in smear tactics. I'm taking the word of CHP over the company at this point, they have no motive in lying for Sikes.

The fact that Sikes is $700,000 in debt (Jesus dude, restrain yourself already!) does not invalidate the fact that his car malfunctioned and he couldn't get it to stop. It doesn't mitigate the other 56 people who are DEAD today because of the same problem. Even the article you link to concedes that an intermittent electrical problem that's hard to replicate is making things worse. But as we all know, in the justice system, he who has the most money gets the favorable verdict.

       
@The_Fury: What may shock you even further on that one is that, at the time, I was looking at three classes of vehicles primarily: sports cars (wife insists that I can't have one, so I want one even more), pick-up trucks with larger cabs, and SUVs - all three of which are the vehicles that are traditionally most likely to be stick shift!

@Samson: I agree, it does seem more likely to me that the guy is telling the truth, but I don't think this new development in his case is irrelevant because, whether these other car sites have any link to Toyota or not, the smear tactics appear to be working at least to the extent necessary to discredit him. (Can you imagine $700k in personal debt? Hell, I can't imagine enough credit to consider getting there...) Another story about him that circulated via AP yesterday after I posted that one is saying Congress probed the case and appears to be questioning it. His wife and lawyer are claiming that he's not trying to sue Toyota out of it so I'm not sure what his angle might be if he is lying though. Here's a link to a copy of that story I found via google: Memo: Investigators Can't Replicate Runaway Prius. Amongst their major concerns seem to be that the brakes aren't showing wear consistent with his tale.

       
WFTV said:

During two hours of test drives of Sikes' car Thursday, technicians with Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to duplicate the same experience that Sikes described ...


How many times have we as coders had something break for a user, but we were unable to duplicate the problem even using their own MUD? How many times have you seen us discuss Oblivion mod bugs where something breaks for a user but no matter what, we can't replicate it? Just because a bunch of mechanics can't duplicate the incident doesn't mean it didn't happen. And as I said before, this has nothing to do with his debt load. That would be like me saying bugs in All Natural are impossible because you're in hock up to your eyeballs with the farm.

I saw mention in one of the comments in that Cnet article you linked earlier that the Prius is "drive-by-wire" which is something The_Fury talked about. The gear selector isn't an actual mechanical device, and neither is the "gas pedal". Both are simply interface devices to tell the computer what to do. If the electronics are fried up enough to cause the pedal to malfunction, who's to say the rest wouldn't also be screwed up?

Brake wear inconsistent with flooring the system isn't conclusive enough for me to hang the guy.

BTW, the end of that WFTV report lists two other incidents of sudden acceleration that led to accidents shortly after. Sikes was lucky, his car survived intact other than chewing his brake pads to nothing.

       
Edited by Samson on Mar 14, 2010 1:41 pm
I agree and I'm not trying to hang the guy. as I said, I don't know what sort of angle he even might be trying for if he is lying, but I can see where they're going with this. 'He was deeply in debt and still owed $20k on the car in question and we can't prove it happened the way he says it did...' I think he probably will end up suing Toyota in the end, or at least the dealership he bought the car from, and is going to get screwed royally.

Exactly, and that's what I was getting at back on 3/9 when I said:
Conner said:

Since I just spent three months effectively visiting with my father-in-law who is a master mechanic of Volvos, I can vouch that there are indeed cars that are basically entirely electronically controlled as The_Fury suggests. It's a scary proposition to think of such a system being in place without backups or overrides and not even set to automatically shut everything down and apply the brakes in the event of a system failure.

Gormicon, from what I gather about this whole Toyota deal, the problem seems likely that the accelerator, braking assist, ignition, and transmission are all electronically controlled and thus it's irrelevant whether she really put it in neutral or not before finally deciding to try reverse instead if the electronic transmission control unit ignored her gear shift lever.


The brake wear issue is the only one I'm thinking is really a serious issue to his story's credibility but even the mechanics in the probe said that the brakes and rotors were completely spent. They're claiming the wear was not what it should've been from prolonged full application of the brakes but rather that they appear to have been used intermittently. Weren't we all taught that you get more out of your brakes in stopping power by using them that way instead of flooring them? Isn't that what the ABS system in a car is specifically designed for? In most modern cars, and I have to assume the prius is not the exception, the ABS system will take over and intermittently apply the brakes automatically if you floor the brake pedal and I would have to assume these mechanics would already know this if it's a common enough bit of knowledge that even I know it.

       
Yes. I know I was taught in driver's ed to pump the brakes in an emergency situation. I took driver's ed back in 1987 though, and ABS wasn't really around much yet. Today, pumping the brakes on an ABS system is going to be counter-productive. You're supposed to put your foot hard into it and let the thing do its job. I've had to do so myself and the sound the thing makes is pretty awful, and even over the short distance I did it the brakes stunk really bad. If you're not expecting the terrible noise, you might be inclined to think something is wrong and react badly to it.

I dare any of these mechanics to get out on the road and try thinking straight in a panic situation as their car is hurtling toward the back end of a semi at 90mph, which is what killed that family last summer.

       
I hear you, I took driver's ed in the fall of '86 myself... pumping the brakes with ABS is counter-productive - I'd always heard that you don't need to pump the brakes with ABS, but I'd never heard that it's actually counter-productive to do so. In fact, my understanding is that the ABS only even kicks in if you floor the brakes and manage to lock one of more of your wheels. See what growing up without modern tech does to our understanding of new-fangled gadgets that are put on our cars without our having anything to do with it because they're required by law? ;)

I've watched my father-in-law intentionally engage the ABS on cars he was test driving before/after repairs, but never for more than a few yards worth. Thankfully I've never yet had to actually use them, but partially because even in an accident I've always stayed fairly level-headed and avoided the pure panic reations.

Believe it or not, it can be done, some folks manage to maintain more cool under pressure than others. But I wiil agree that most people will make really bad stupid mistakes in that sort of situation.

       
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