How Hard Should It Be To Stop a Runaway Luxury Car?

Fatal August Crash Involving Toyota Lexus Forces Safety Recall and Raises Other Safety Questions About Smart Cars

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How Hard Should It Be To Stop a Runaway Luxury Car?

In Sunday's LA Times, there was a very interesting article investigating the question whether "Toyota's ignition, transmission and braking systems may make it difficult for drivers to combat sudden or unintended accelerations and safely recover, regardless of their cause."

The story comes in light of the recent Toyota recall of 3.8 million vehicles involving driver side floor mats that might, if improperly installed, come loose or are not of the right type, jam certain Toyota models' accelerator pedals into the full open position. As Toyota notes, "A stuck open accelerator pedal may result in very high vehicle speeds and make it difficult to stop the vehicle, which could cause a crash, serious injury or death." The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recall notice is here.

Toyota's recall followed a terrible car crash in California in late August that killed 19-year veteran California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, teenage daughter and brother-in-law. Their borrowed 2009 Lexus ES 350 was traveling at 120 mph at the time, and despite his best efforts, Officer Saylor couldn't stop or slow down the car. A floor mat becoming stuck in the car's accelerator pedal is suspected as being the cause.

The LA Times says that there have been five related fatal crashes in the U.S. over the last two years involving runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Toyota has maintained that sudden acceleration or runaway car incidents involving its vehicles are primarily due to improperly installed floor mats.

Critics, on the other hand, contend that the problem goes beyond floor mats, and may involve fundamental design issues in certain Toyota models, especially its luxury models which have highly complex electronically controlled or assisted systems.

(I wrote an article on software in cars earlier this year for Spectrum here.)

For instance, the Lexus ES 350 driven by Officer Saylor has a push-button starter, which is activated by the combination of a wireless electronic fob carried by the driver and a button on the dashboard, the Times says. To turn the car off in an emergency situation once it is in motion, you have to hold the start button down for a full three seconds: repeated pushing of the button does not work. The user's manual tells a driver this, but as the LA Times points out, this information is given only after telling drivers:  "Caution, Do not touch the 'power' switch while driving."

In addition, shifting a car into neutral to try to disengage the engine from the transmission isn't easy either in an emergency situation. The Times story says, "the ES 350 is equipped with an automatic transmission that can mimic manual shifting, and its shift lever on the console has a series of gates and detents that allow a driver to select any of at least four forward gears. The arrangement of those gear selections could make it difficult to shift from a forward gear directly into neutral in a panic situation, Toyota spokesman Lyons acknowledged."

Spokesman Lyon added, rather worryingly, that, "You'd be surprised how many people around here [Toyota] don't know what the neutral position is for."

I guess most people no longer drive a manual shift anymore.

As for hitting the brakes to slow a car down, another issue pops up, says the Times. "The ES 350 and most other modern vehicles are equipped with power-assisted brakes, which operate by drawing vacuum power from the engine. But when an engine opens to full throttle [like in a runaway car situation], the vacuum drops, and after one or two pumps of the brake pedal, the power assist feature disappears."

Tests indicate that a person would have to exert 225 pounds of pressure on a brake pedal to stop it - a mean feat for almost anyone, let alone a person trying to keep a car on the road while avoiding hitting anything as it is traveling at 176 feet per second.

Critics have been insisting for a decade, the LA Times reports, that Toyota and other auto manufacturers need to install a fail-safe mechanism in their highly computerized engine control systems that can quickly recognize and then stop sudden acceleration/runaway car events. One suggestion is for the car's engine to be turned off when a car's brakes are depressed while the accelerator is also being depressed (people who like to ride their brakes may not like this feature, though).

Even Toyota, which has long resisted such installing such a device, has acknowledged that it is now rethinking its position.

The LA Times story ends with a note that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into sudden acceleration events involving Toyota vehicles.

I'll let you know what it finds.

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