Lawyers Suing Toyota Attack NASA Sudden Unintended Acceleration Study

As you may recall, in early February, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) released the final results from NASA's Engineering and Safety Center's ten-month study into potential electronic causes of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) in Toyota vehicles. The study basically said that NASA's experts could not find any electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed, sudden unintended acceleration incidents. Driver error was the most likely cause of the reported cases of SUA was the implication.

About a week after the NASA study came out, the LA Times reported that Toyota went to United States District Court, Central District of California, claiming that the conclusions reached in the NASA report exonerated the company, and that the class action lawsuit against the company "alleging that the presence of defects in their vehicles negatively affected the vehicles' value" among other allegations should be dismissed.

When the NASA report first came out, as well as when the above Toyota court filing was made, the lawyers for those suing Toyota said that the NASA study was an interesting data point but wasn't by any means conclusive, and that they would be contesting the study's findings soon.

Well, this week, Bloomberg reported that the lawyers filed court papers claiming that:

"Plaintiffs’ experts will contradict the findings in the NASA report, conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and will prove Toyota’s electronic throttle control system is the cause of sudden acceleration."

The Bloomberg story also said the lawyers wanted access to some 8 million lines of software code, not just the 280,000 lines associated with Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System Intelligent (ETCS-i) system that NASA examined.

A related story in the Wall Street Journal this week describes how the plaintiffs' lawyers have been fighting with Toyota over access to its vehicle software. Toyota, saying that it has to protect its intellectual property, is trying to impose security restrictions that make it difficult for the lawyers and the 10 expert engineers they've hired to gain unfettered access to the software. The WSJ reports that legal experts say the level of security Toyota is asking for is "highly unusual."

Interestingly, in late February, an article appeared in Bloomberg reporting that the judge in the case had told both Toyota and the plaintiffs' lawyers to come to an agreement quickly on how the software was to be reviewed. The article also quoted that Toyota lawyers saying that there wasn't any disagreement about what software could be reviewed, but only how the review process would be monitored to ensure no software was leaked into the public domain. This week's WSJ article strongly implies that there is still a way to go before an acceptable agreement is reached among all the parties involved.

I am very curious to hear about the software code review process used on whatever software is eventually provided to the plaintiffs' lawyers and their experts. The NASA study used the MathWorks tools MATLAB and Simulink to review the 280,000 lines of ETCS-i code.

From the restrictions on viewing the software described by the WSJ (e.g., "Toyota has asked that plaintiffs' engineers link to its servers to access the code to ensure it isn't being altered as it is reviewed. Toyota also had wanted them to view only a few lines of code at a time and to erase them from their computers at the end of every day."), I don't know what the lawyers expect their experts to realistically find in their multi-million lines of code review without the aid of automated code analysis tools, especially one conducted in such a restricted environment.

The trial is slated to begin in early 2013.

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