Monday, March 15, 2010

The Prius Juggernaut

Final update:

The Toyota Prius stuck pedal is a hoax - its official now with multiple news sites reporting it:
...and many more.

Interestingly enough Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple has also owned up to his freaky stunt, saying that he too had been hoaxing, after being reported as having said his Prius had a stuck-accelerator.

Seems that TV reporters were all too keen to hear any story about Toyotas back then, and if you wanted to get on TV that was how to do it.

Further udpate:

This excellent video from edmunds.com - a US car review website - has a great demonstration of the all-weather car mat problem, and a very sane discussion of unintended acceleration.

If you really are interested in stopping so-called unintended acceleration then following the advice given in this video to put your car in neutral is the way to go.

For those that remain convinced that electronic gremlins in the fly-by-wire systems on cars is the cause, and that we should all go back to mechanical throttles because they were oh-so reliable I still await any evidence of this. The fact is that electronic throttles which cut out the engine when the brake is fully depressed, as the Prius does, are much safer than any mechanical linkage.




Update: a recent report of a collision with a wall after 56 year-old driver in New York state experiencing "unintended acceleration" in her Prius has been determined by the NHTSA to be a case of driver error. The NHTSA said
Information retrieved from the vehicle's onboard computer systems indicated there was no application of the brakes and the throttle was fully open.
What irritates me no end is that the original "breaking news" reports were stated in a way that conflated drive-by-wire with unintended acceleration. Now that the NHTSA have ruled it was driver error - the owner simply panicked and jumped on the wrong pedal - do you think there will be a breaking news retraction?

Meanwhile Prius has been rated the "Most Dependable Car" in a recent survey. But such stories don't compare for headline grabbing shock-horror value stories about out of control drive-by-wire that technophobes lap up with glee, even when they're proven to be completely bogus.

I'm on my third Prius. When an electric car becomes available here in Australia I'll buy that, but until then Prius is the lowest emissions option, with far better carbon footprint than any car in its class.

It's spacious - easily carrying 4-5 adults and baggage, has plenty of power, and an excellent standard of finish, and accessories.

When I got my first one - they were rare as hens teeth. I even joined a Prius car club. Seeing one on the road was cause for excitement. People at work marvelled at the LCD display, and the electronics under the hood.

Then over to the USA and my second Prius - they were a lot more popular there, especially so in California.

The image left is of that Prius, an 07 iTech with all the bells and whistles, sitting rather cheekily in the car park of the Tesla HQ in Silicon Valley.

Now in 2010 Prius is everywhere, even in backwater Brisbane, Australia. In my small work car park alone, there are 3-4; Prius taxis queue up behind each other in city cab ranks; and Prius drivers sail past each other on the roads without the slightest frisson of excitement or recognition.

It seems there is no stopping the juggernaut of Toyota's marvel car, as they struggle to keep up with demand, and win award after award with it.

Of course now that Prius is popular, that means a lot more people are driving them.

And guess what - that means idiots are also driving them.

Was just checking the news websites via Google news, and a number of mostly conservative news sites, like Fox news, are reporting a piece about the Police in San Diego helping a Prius driver with a stuck accelerator slow his vehicle. The piece was originated by the San Diego Tribune and syndicated by AP.

The article also comments that a Police officer was killed recently in a Toyota stuck accelerator incident, and that Toyota are involved in a recall at present.

These sorts of reports are often phrased in a way that to the casual reader sounds like all Toyota vehicles are death traps waiting to close around their next victim. The front page of the Economist has carried a recent story about Toyota slips up. Certainly seems like the world has got it in for Toyota.

Anyway - that "sudden acceleration".

Some additional facts are that the Police officer in that case was off duty, driving with his family; and the vehicle was a Toyota Lexus 4WD. The car also contained the driver's brother-in-law who phoned 911 during the incident.

The vehicle was a loaner car, while the driver's regular vehicle was being repaired. The fact that the vehicle was a loaner makes it more likely that the driver was unfamiliar with the engine on/off switch. There is no evidence that he attempted to put the car in neutral.

There was a recall last year for floor mats entrapping the accelerator pedal in some Toyotas - as far as I can tell this is what is being blamed for this 4 person fatal crash, in the preliminary reports.

The recall also involved packaging changes to instruct drivers in the proper installation of the all-weather floor mats which could slide forward if not fitted properly.

There is a Toyota current recall, but its only for some newer models, and relates to the braking of the car at very low speeds. Nothing to do with the accelerator.

There has to date been no investigation outcomes supporting any problems with the electronic throttle on Toyota vehicles as far as I know. However much of the hype out there is drumming up the notion that electronic throttles are to blame, and Prius electronics in general are faulty.

However Toyota have to manage possibilities, and also try to avoid problems that could make it easier for drivers to make errors. It has to manage perceptions, and if people experience things that they don't expect, and which could cause them to panic.

This is one of the reasons why our USA Prius had the EV switch removed - it was yet another thing that might "freak out" US drivers.

So.

I have been interested to discover what is behind all this publicity of stuck accelerator and failing brakes.

Any Police officer will tell you they are always suspicious of any reports made by drivers of vehicles, especially drivers who have been involved in collisions, or high-speed incidents. There can be some quite amazing behaviour and reports from drivers when they are on the face of it at fault in an collision; or when they suddenly notice that there is a "speed trap" and that they might have been detected by it.

I'm not saying at all that there are no valid reports - I'm just saying that reported incidents need to be carefully corroborated, using an evidence based approach.

In particular when serious incidents have occurred the cars are very very meticulously examined for mechanical and electronic/electrical faults by Police and Transport Authorities to determine if anything about the vehicle contributed to the collision. Where there is any corroboration at all from those examinations, or from examination of the scene and other eye-witnesses, then these reports need to be taken very seriously indeed.

A couple of other salient facts - there are a large number of lawsuits open at present for "Sudden Acceleration" - sites like http://suddenacceleration.com/ offer to find you good lawyers for your Sudden Acceleration Syndrome claim. This "Sudden Acceleration" syndrome has been around for 20 years now, and has become a nice little earner for lawyers.

If enough hype can be gathered about a particular vehicle, then there's plenty of instant whiplash victims donning their foam collars and ringing the local ambulance chasers to join the class action. For some this is better than working for a living apparently.

This wikipedia article is very interesting, and has a great history of the "sudden acceleration phenomena".

Basically after years of pursuing the Audi 5000 there was never any evidence for the claims of unintended acceleration - the class action lawsuit that was launched by several people reporting "Sudden Acceleration" was eventually lost after an expert who they called was involved with rigging an Audi to exhibit the fault for a television program.

The reports have been determined to be due to driver error such as hitting the accelerator pedal believing it to be the brake, or the pedal becoming stuck against some loose object in the footwell.

Note that in the case of the Audi there were recalls - to fit an accelerator pedal that was further away from the brake pedal. Its common apparently for sports cars to have the two close together for high-performance driving, but here the car was dumbed down for the american driver.

This article has a skeptical view of the Prius stuck accelerator reports.

My own view is that the vast number of these complaints are actually caused by cruise control. The reports in these incidents involve cruise control.

In this account:

I felt the vehicle [2008 Lexus ES 350] increasing in speed to about 90 mph, without depressing the accelerator. I had been on cruise control at about 73 mph... [A] passenger screamed at me to slow down. I was unable to do so, even after stepping forcefully on the brakes.

If the vehicle has been on a steady decline or level surface and encounters an incline, neighbouring vehicles not using cruise control will tend to slow down. However in a vehicle with the cruise control on, it will increase engine revs and in automatic cars drop to a lower gear.

A sudden call for extra power by the cruise control in this situation causes the motor to rev up quite dramatically. This should all be expected because you have asked the vehicle to maintain a high steady speed, and now on the incline much more power is required to acheive that. At the same time other vehicles in neighbouring lanes appear much slower by comparison.

If a driver has been at the wheel for a long time, in a steady stream of traffic, using cruise control, their alertness and attention to the road may wander. This is especially so if there are other distractions in the car. Suddenly the engine revs up, other vehicles out the window are going relatively slower - and a 10 km difference in speed versus the traffic will look like you are roaring along.

Now the driver who has had their feet away from the controls suddenly panics and tries to slow the vehicle - in this case it can be easy to misapply the controls, jamming the foot onto the accelerator, or getting both the brake and the accelerator.

I suspect a large number more of these reports are due to obstructions in the footwell of the car - like the improperly fitted floor mats in the Toyota cars. The remainder I would put down to driver error - fatigue, distraction and all the rest.

They go and jam their foot on the wrong pedal.

Whether its the cruise control thing, or footwell obstructions, putting the car in neutral and applying the brake always works.

There are I would say hundreds, thousands of drivers out there who have experienced problems from cruise control or footwell obstruction - they've put the vehicle in neutral and applied the brakes and all has been OK. However the ones who fail to control the vehicle - are they going to ever say there was something that they could have done? Nope, the damages - especially the more severe they are - are the fault of the vehicle manufacturer, the evil corporation.

The trouble with the litigious society is that it results in dumbing down of everything and poorer results for the rest of us that are able to drive and generally behave responsibly.

My view is that it is extremely unlikely that there are any valid actual incidents of something going wrong with the electronic throttle on any vehicles. You should start worrying about precautions for electronic throttles about the same time as you do for meteors falling on your head. The chance that that is true is far outweighed by the safety advantages of the electronic throttle, which for example automatically cuts out acceleration when you apply the brake (as mentioned in the allaboutprius article).

Here's yet another story about a woman who reported her Lexus going out of control. Her complaints were rejected by Toyota and also by the NHTSA - now here she is in a congressional hearing saying that the NHTSA aren't doing their job properly. The comments make for interesting reading.

I'm sure she experienced something horrible and frightening. However we need to get over the fact that not everything has to be someone else's fault.


Some more developments on the case of the "runaway Prius":

Turns out that
  • Toyota are stating that what he reports - that brakes were applied but the car kept accelerating - is not possible, and this was confirmed by tests both by Toyota and the NHTSA, while an observer from the congressional hearing was in attendance
  • The CHP - both the officer following the vehicle and the 911 operator - told him to put it in neutral over the course of the 27 minutes incident - he did not
  • Sikes, the driver of the Prius in the reported "sudden acceleration" case is a bankrupt, has a large debt, and has retained a lawyer
Commentators on blogs are comparing the thing to the "Balloon Boy" incident - where the news gets hold of something happening in "real time", but it turns out to be all faked.

Here is a guy who finds his car accelerating out of control, so he calls 911?? You're driving an out of control vehicle so you get on the phone?

But you don't try to put the vehicle in neutral, or press the engine off switch? You don't even have to move your hand from the wheel to put the car in neutral on the Prius - the stalk is right there on the dash.

I'm afraid my bullsh*t detector just tripped up into the red zone....

10 comments:

  1. Toyota and others knew they were having issues and attempted to hide it. All Car Companies should have came forward with a full disclosures of what car were dangerous. Instead of waiting for a huge media blitz and tons of public pressure. I never seen so many car companies GM - NISSAN - TOYOTA - HYUNDAI having recalls all at the same time. I had no idea my car was affected until I looked on http://www.carpedalrecall.com and found I had a bad Anti Lock control unit on my 2008 Pontiac G8 , my co workers Ford Truck had a recall also. So be careful

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  2. Hi Scott - thanks for your comment.

    I'm intrigued by your claim that Toyota knew. Could you supply some support for this claim?

    Certainly I see a few comments on blogs with conspiracy theories about Toyota being bad. But saying it don't make it so.

    In all my research to date I have not been able to find any evidence or authoritative support for the claim that Toyota has acted in anything but the most responsible way.

    I'd be pleased to see any actual evidence of this claim if you can point me to some.

    I looked at the site you mention and it just seems to be a link farm, with no actual content about recall of car pedals. All it has is a bunch of links - it looks like an advertising site.

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  3. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. After hearing the other side of the story for so long now, it is nice to get some balance.

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  4. Update: Toyota has released their preliminary report on the incident. http://green.autoblog.com/2010/03/15/toyota-releases-preliminary-test-results-in-runaway-prius-case/

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  5. Sarah, there seems to be a lot of unsupported claims here including your claim that "Any Police officer will tell you they are always suspicious of any reports made by drivers of vehicles, especially drivers who have been involved in collisions, or high-speed incidents."

    I would be interested to see your support for this claim. I have spoken and deposed many police officers and have never heard this before.

    I am also skeptical of this statement "In particular when serious incidents have occurred the cars are very very meticulously examined for mechanical and electronic/electrical faults by Police and Transport Authorities to determine if anything about the vehicle contributed to the collision. Where there is any corroboration at all from those examinations, or from examination of the scene and other eye-witnesses, then these reports need to be taken very seriously indeed."

    Although I have handled many death cases and serious injuries involving car accidents, I have only seen the Department of Transportation come out in one instance nor have the police performed a thorough and meticulous inspection of the vehicles mechanics. In most instance, engineering reports and accident reconstructions were performed later by qualified engineering experts for the defense and prosecution.

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  6. Hi - and thanks for your comment. Skepticism is always a good thing, so thank you for your attention and applying it with respect to my writing. :-)

    A name would be handy - I feel awkward addressing you as "Toyota Recall Page". Perhaps "Dear Mr/Ms Page" will have to do. :-)

    Two is "a lot of unsupported claims" ...?

    I would be interested to hear if in your view any of my claims apart from the ones relating to Police procedures are unsupported.

    I am loath to mention my chequered past, especially in blog posts. When others do that it seems too often to be an appeal to authority when arguments should stand on their own.

    In this case however my claims are directly based on my personal experience of facts. This text box is limited to 3000 words, and I'm disinclined to paste my resume here, but if you can provide me your email address and an undertaking of confidentiality I am happy to forward it to you.

    Some of that direct personal knowledge is now decades out of date. However I know for a fact that groups like the Accident Investigation Squad in Queensland and like bodies in other states and countries do in fact now, as then, take very seriously the role of inspectors who painstakingly investigate vehicles after collisions.

    Here is the policy in Queensland:

    http://www.police.qld.gov.au/rti/published/policies/traffic-manual/05/Ch_05_PT4.htm

    In part it says:

    An inspection of a vehicle is warranted when:
    (i) the vehicle is involved in a fatal or serious road crash;
    (ii) the vehicle is involved in any incident where mechanical failure or tyre failure is alleged;
    (iii) an examination is required to support or negate any defence that may be raised in relation to a charge of dangerous operation of a vehicle, due care and attention or similar offences;

    Note that because this relates to court proceedings, if a Police officer failed to get an inspection done, and it later became relevant in court, then the Prosecuting Sergeant using certain anglo-saxon vocabulary would be advising that officer of new career opportunities they might want to consider outside the Police. To be explicit at least in the antipodes, it is the courts that ensure Police are well-prepared by having had inspections done in any case where it might be relevant. Note here that courts includes the coroners court, as well as criminal courts.

    Note also in the above policy the mention of the capability of such inspectors to give expert testimony. Although the first port of call for investigations is the experienced mechanical investigators they can I believe also call on other experts to examine evidence that falls outside their area of expertise if warranted.

    I am confident that law reports exist where the evidence of such inspections was taken into account in judgements. If you are motivated to say that I'm wrong about this I can go searching: http://www.austlii.edu.au/databases.html

    I hope that helps alleviate your doubts.

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  7. Sarah, you can call me Mrs. Page. :) or Erin if you prefer. "A lot" encompasses the unsupported claims of other commentators as well as well as your unsupported claims. A great deal of what we read on the internet consists of unsupported claims. I'll add one more claim to the mix...it appears that police practices differ significantly from one geographic area to the next.

    Regards,


    Erin

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  8. Hi Erin,

    Great to see a[nother] smart woman applying critical analysis to the 'net.

    You're very right about the differences in police practices. In England, Australia and New Zealand a similar commonwealth style model of Policing is used. In the United States Police chiefs are elected, and many - often small - local jurisdictions overlap at any one location. In the commonwealth model Police chiefs are promoted from within the rank and file, ideally on merit rather than popularity; and a few Law Enforcement groups span the whole country.

    In California there are a dozen different jurisdictions as you drive south from San Fran down the 101, as well as CHP, State Troopers and a number of governmental agencies such as the FBI. On top of that there is a new administration every time theres an election. How you keep policy straight or maintain a scalable infrastructure I don't know.

    There's very much a feeling that unlawful actions need to pretty much occur under the nose of a Law Enforcment officer for anything to be done about it because 5 minutes later the culprit is in a different jurisdiction. Or at least that is what I picked up when I was there.

    In Australia there are State Police responsible for each of Queensland, New South Wales and the other states; and an overarching Federal Police whose ambit includes some federal law and policing of the national capital Canberra; and that is it for Policing - apart from a few miscellaneous issuers of parking tickets, fishing fines and customs/border enforcement. If you have a traffic matter - a US moving violation - you know there is only one possible Police uniform that could be issuing it anywhere in Queensland. Moreover standing orders and policies largely persist over changes in government.

    Of course we're far from perfect and have had our scandals, but the general quality of investigation and law enforcement is pretty good here.

    One thing I am very interested to know is whether any incidents of so called unintended acceleration with Prius, or even any other vehicle have been reported outside the US - and to the best of my knowledge the answer is no: there are no such reports.

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  9. I'll have to re-read this in the morning and respond appropriately when my husband isn't giving me the evil eye for spending too much time at the keyboard. For now, I'll just point you in this direction.

    http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/toyota-prius-could-be-banned/

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  10. Well, there you go - reports have been received in other countries. Thanks for finding this and spending your keyboard time on contributing to this discussion. My husband also seems to think I ought to be pampering him instead of spending time at the keyboard. :-)

    When I did my original research for this article I didn't see any reports of incidents from other countries. It looks as tho' this one came out the same day I published my article (timezones notwithstanding).

    However the original report you linked I notice there has been some developments.

    * the investigation by Norwegian authorities has found that the incident was due to improperly installed insecure all-weather floor mats
    * the driver has been indicted for making bogus emergency calls
    * he has also been involved in another collision - this time in a rental car

    http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/police-investigate-runaway-prius/
    http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/runaway-prius-driver-in-new-accident/
    http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/police-indict-toyota-prius-driver/

    Now I'm not making any apologies for Toyota. But this looks to be riding on the same hype that came from the USA.

    I'm going to say there are no fly-by-wire accelerator caused incidents of unintended acceleration to date. That's my claim, supported by my research to date.

    They have so far all been driver error, obstructions in the footwell or other mundane causes.

    Causes that could occur in any make or model of car, no matter whether the accelerator was connected by electronics, or mechanical linkage.

    Toyotas are very popular and I can see why the US auto industry is gunning for them. But so far all I see from the anti-Toyota-Prius lobby is FUD and hype.

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Hi, thanks for leaving your thoughtful on-topic comment!