The LA Times is reporting that lawyers suing Toyota for crashes they claim were caused by sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) in Toyota vehicles have decided to shift their focus away from software-induced SUA to why Toyota resisted installing brake override systems in their vehicles for so long. While the lawyers are denying it is so, Toyota is claiming that this is an admission that the lawyers suing the company have not been able to find a "software smoking gun" in the ETCS-i system (Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence - see Toyota PDF about it here) as a cause for SUA.
Toyota has had to recall millions of cars in the past year because of SUA linked to floor mat accelerator pedal entrapment and "sticking" accelerator pedals.
The LA Times says that the lawyers representing clients in over 100 lawsuits against Toyota think that their case is stronger by trying to show Toyota knew of a safety enhancement that could stop SUA but decided against implementing it until the US government pressured Toyota into it after recalling its vehicles for SUA problems. Documents supposedly show that Toyota was talking with the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about installing a brake override system in 2007, but decided against doing so. They also claim that Toyota has been slow in publicly admitting safety problems.
For its part, Toyota is trying to play down the lack of a brake override system in its previous models, saying that many of the crashes it is being sued for would have likely happened even with such a system in place. Toyota believes that many if not most of the crashes occurred because drivers hit the accelerator pedal when they thought they were hitting the brakes.
"Brake override only works when your foot is on the brake," a Toyota spokesperson was quoted as saying in the LA Times story.
Toyota received news it didn't want recently when seven insurance companies decided to sue the company to recover some $230,000 in claims paid for 14 crashes the insurance companies blame on SUA. According to this story also at the LA Times,
"The insurers cite data that blames 725 crashes on the problem and fault Toyota for failing to equip its cars with an override system that would cause a car to idle if the brake and gas were deployed simultaneously."
Also, it was revealed in late December that Toyota paid $10 million last September to settle the lawsuit brought by the relatives of California Highway Patrol Office Mark Saylor and his family. Officer Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law were killed in a horrific accident involving a Lexus ES 350 in San Diego in August of 2009, Publicity surrounding the crash sparked the initial investigations into SUA in Toyota vehicles.
Finally, the reports of the NHTSA/NASA and National Academy of Sciences investigations into SUA should both be released by early summer at the latest. These reports should help with the understanding of SUA in Toyota vehicles as well as SUA in general.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.