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The Toyota Timeline – How We Came to Yesterday

January 27, 2010

As we reported yesterday, Toyota has suspended the sale of some of their best selling vehicles (including the Camry, the best selling car in the United States).  What the problem really is and what the impact will be of this drastic step is yet to be seen, but in the coming days we will provide some analysis about both.  Before we do any of that, we have to identify how we got to where we are today.  Read on after the jump to see what prompted this ground breaking decision.

High Profile Fatality
Its unclear when the first reports of unintended acceleration filtered their way up to Toyota and the NTSB, or when the first fatality occurred, but the first high profile fatality was that of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and his family.  At the time of the accident, Saylor had turned in his car for service and was driving a Lexus ES 350 loaner (note: the ES 350 is the Lexus version of the Toyota Camry).  On August 28th, 2009, at approximately 19:00 hours local time, Saylor’s brother-in-law placed a call to 911 from the car.  Fifty seconds later the Lexus had struck a Ford Explorer, gone of the road, flipped multiple times, and burst into flames.  Saylor, his wife, his daughter, and his brother-in-law were all killed instantly.  The car is estimated to have been traveling in excess of 120 mph at the time of the crash.

Sign on San Diego posted the 911 call on their website.  I am linking to the story that includes it, so you can make the decision to listen to it or not.  This link does not lead directly to the audio.  It is VERY difficult to listen to:

Toyota Responds
A month and one day (September 29th, 2009) after the tragic accident that took the lives of Officer Saylor and his family, Toyota issued a massive recall for 3.8 MILLION Lexus and Toyota branded vehicles.  The recall was based on the theory that floor mats could potentially cause the gas pedal to stick and result in unintended acceleration.  As we will discuss further in following pieces.  This explanation raised eyebrows in the car community for a number of reasons.  The primary reason it was met with skepticism is because, in the opinion of many auto enthusiasts, a stuck pedal, due to a floor mat, could not have caused the death of Officer Saylor and his family.  Assuming he attempted to apply the brakes, a properly functioning braking system would have been more powerful than the car’s engine.

Toyota Issues its Second Recall
On November 25th, 2009, less than two months after the first recall, Toyota issued a second recall for the same issue.  Instead of focusing on the floor mats, Toyota issued instructions to have the gas pedal shortened, and in some vehicles have brake override software installed (ed. note: technically should be named throttle override). Brake override software instructs the car’s computer to ignore any commands to increase throttle (speed) while the brakes are being applied.  It is standard on almost all other vehicles on the road.  Again, though it was a step in the right direction, car enthusiasts were, once again, skeptical.  In the Saylor accident, if the brakes had been applied (not just at the pedal, but at the wheel itself) the car would have slowed (albeit gradually) even with the throttle at full bore. Toyota’s failure to include a brake override from the factory was a critical and dangerous mistake but it would not have resulted in the death of Officer Saylor and his family.

Recall Number Three: Like Godfather III, but worse
Again, after approximately another two months (seeing a pattern here? this will be explained in our next post), on January 21st, 2010, Toyota issues another recall.   Smaller (smaller is a relative term) in scope than the first two, at 2.3 million vehicles, this recall focused on some models accelerator pedals sticking at partial throttle.  This is the first time Toyota has identified a mechanical fault in this series of recalls.  That said, once again for all the aforementioned reasons, it is this commentator’s opinion that (say it with me kids!) this could not have caused the Saylor crash.

The Bombshell: 1/26/2010
Now we are up to yesterday, and we all know what happened yesterday.

Tomorrow we will rehash this from a more technical position.  Its important that everyone, car knowledge or not, understands what is happening.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura permalink
    January 27, 2010 1:54 pm

    Great coverage – keep up the good work!

  2. January 27, 2010 3:23 pm

    You have several times made the assertion that a properly functioning brake system would have prevented officer Saylor’s accident. At face value, you’re right. The car’s brakes should be designed to handle dissipate more power than the car’s engine can put out. The brakes on his car undoubtedly could handle that much power, but only for a very short time. If his throttle was one way or another stuck wide open and he slammed on the brakes, they probably would have stopped him just fine. However if he instead used the brakes for let’s say 30 seconds trying to maintain speed while he figured out what was going on, they’d probably already be toasted. If he decides to stop then after he’s already overheated them maintaining speed, it’s not going to work. Plus, if he’s already pressed the pedal a time or two without coming to a stop, he’s probably used up all the vacuum in the brake booster. Once that’s happened, he’s left with three options to stop the car.

    1. Let the brakes cool back down and then use them to stop the car. He’d cover a LOT of ground in that amount of time. Not safe at all.
    2. Turn off the engine and let the car come to a stop. You should NEVER operate a vehicle without knowing how to do this, but it’s been said that he didn’t know. He might lose power steering, but that should be manageable.
    3. Bump the shifter in to neutral. The brakes, even overheated, will slow the car when they aren’t fighting the engine.

    The fact that his brakes wouldn’t stop the car is not indicative of faulty or inadequate brakes. It’s just that they were already overheated before he tried to stop the vehicle. Unfortunately in this case, it seems that the brakes were the only method to stop a vehicle that officer Saylor knew to use.

    You also call Toyota’s lack of a throttle override a critical and dangerous mistake. A throttle override is an unnecessary patch that will make vehicles worse. It’s unnecessary because a driver should always know how to stop or disconnect the engine in the case of a stuck throttle. It’s bad for the vehicle, because if you can’t accelerate the engine while using the brakes, you can’t smoothly downshift while braking. This will cause increased synchronizer and clutch wear, and it will make shifts less smooth.

    In my experience, stuck throttles are not all that uncommon an occurrence. I have experienced it while operating many different vehicles. I can only imagine that most other drivers have encountered the same thing. Though it is an annoyance, it’s never created a big safety problem for me. Every part fails. Every system malfunctions. Throttle linkages and controls are no exception. I’m not sure why it’s such a big deal when it happens to a Toyota.

    • January 27, 2010 3:36 pm

      Obviously my points on the problems with a throttle override are centered around cars with manual transmissions. I know that officer Saylor’s vehicle had an automatic transmission, but I’m assuming that a throttle override would be applied to all models regardless of transmission.

    • Paul permalink*
      January 27, 2010 3:42 pm

      unfortunately it would be impossible to shift into neutral or shut down.

      The ES 350 uses a push button start and a no mechanical linkage between the transmission and the gear selector. If the car was accelerating, the vehicle would not let itself shift into park. If there is an ECU issue it would not have gone into neutral either.

      Overheated brakes are possible, but unlikely.

      Great read on that topic:

      Tonight I will get into the more technical side of it, specifically, what I think is happening.

      • January 27, 2010 4:02 pm

        The article you linked indicates that it is possible to shift into neutral with an open throttle on a Toyota. As many people that have raced street cars have learned, brake fade is very real. Brakes can overheat quickly with cyclic use like would be found on a race course. If they were used continuously for 30 seconds to 1 minute, they would get very, very hot.

        I’m interested to hear your theory.

      • Paul permalink*
        January 27, 2010 4:17 pm

        In short, my theory is that SOMETHING is preventing the transmission from shifting into neutral. Based on the recall – I am thinking the pedal position sensor is sending bad info to the ECU causing it to crash (think Windows 98 and the Blue Screen of Death) there by preventing any computerized systems from working properly.

      • Russ permalink
        February 9, 2010 12:59 am

        The second link

        shows that the accelerator pedal is not the only problem. While the accelerator pedal may be sticking it is not the only issue here. If the leftlane news avalon report is true and I suspect it is. The engine control unit and/or the throttle actuator or the wiring between them is suspect.

        My guess in the CHP Lexus crash is the ECU or throttle actuator caused the un-intended acceleration. Next the brakes were heated beyond the boiling point of the fluid (which may not have been changed and absorbed water).

        Once the fluid was heated by extended high speed driving with the brakes applied the fluid boiled causing braking force to be less effective. Panic may have prevented shifting to neutral, switching the key off or the software may have prevented it if the micro processor have lost it’s little silicon mind so to speak. Your theory on the transmission may well be valid. With out serious and expensive testing we may never know.

  3. Russ permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:50 am

    Having worked in aerospace since the mid 80s, I can guess at the possible causes.

    -Cables and Connectors are usually a starting point in an investigation. It is difficult to explain in a few sentences but when using high frequency microprocessors it’s easy to mangle a “bit” due to frayed wiring crimps, corrosion, exposed wiring, and poor connections to ground or supply voltages. That one lost bit can cause a computer to miss interpret things. Which can be very bad or not so bad depending on what kind of system you’re dealing with.

    -Next up is the electronics itself, different parts can and do function erratically when even when sound design principals are applied. Only the best electrical design teams can produce a design that works perfectly the first time. Usually re-spins of the circuit boards are required to fix un-foreseen flaws. Once the boards are fixed the firmware debug can start. Fixing the embedded software in the chips that run the circuit. Many flaws will show up in this part of the process and it can take significant time to find and remedy them (years).

    -Next up is environmental effects from temperatures effects to electromagnetic effects and everything in-between rust, salt fog, dust intrusion, moisture etc. All of these can and do cause havoc with electro-mechanical systems on aircraft.
    There are more items but time limits things.

    To correct for the risk inherent in fly by wire systems the aircraft industry uses 3 systems approach to prevent complete failure… which is deemed to be safe enough based on statistical calculations. Most fly by wire aircraft today use 3 flight control computers, and 3 navigation computers etc. 3 hydraulic systems. You use 3 systems on anything that touches flight safety. This usually prevents most faults as evidenced by current flight safety in the U.S. but is very costly to implement… take a look at aircraft costs.

    Since fly by wire throttles and other controls have been introduced into the automotive industry but 3 systems back-ups have not been introduced the statistical odds of failure go up for autos. That is to say auto manufacturers don’t use 3 engine control units and 3 throttle senors built into one control system with voting software logic that is “wrung out” buy years of “in-flight” testing as required for airframes.

    So what we are seeing and will see more of is hardware and software related faults showing up in control systems as they always do until fixed. These are very complex systems and it appears the testing and standards applied to testing are suspect…. only time will tell the whole story.

    It is possible the brakes were overheated any racer will tell you that, it’s also entirely possible the computers prevented correct control inputs from being completed as they would in effect be “jammed”. Only a very expensive instrumentation system and serious testing will provide insight as to what probably happened. I am sorry for the lives that were lost in the incident it is very unfortunate.

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