This week’s edition of IT hiccups, snarls, and general foul-ups begins with the surprising announcement last Thursday by U.S. District Judge James V. Selna who, according to Bloomberg News, issued an order stopping lawsuits into claims of sudden unintended accelerations in vehicles manufactured by Toyota. The reason: to give time requested by both Toyota and plaintiff lawyers to find a way to settle claims against the car manufacturer.
As long time readers of the Risk Factor may recall, the issue of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) really came to the fore in 2009 when Toyota issued an initial recall of 3.8 million vehicles over the possibility that floor mats were jamming accelerator pedals, keeping them in the full open position. A fatal crash in California the same year took the life of a veteran California Highway Patrol Officer (along with his wife, teenage daughter and brother-in-law) who could not find a way to stop a runaway 2009 Lexus ES 350. That incident helped highlight claims of additional sources of SUA problems with Toyotas such as software/hardware-related defects inadvertently affecting Toyota’s electronic throttle control system. These claims (along with Congressional pressure) forced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct an investigation which reported no such defects could be uncovered. Toyota had long insisted that most cases of SUA were the result of driver error and not electronic-related, and used to the NHTSA investigation to bolster its argument.
Even though the NHTSA couldn't uncover anything wrong with Toyota's electronic throttle system, that finding didn’t stop SUA lawsuits from being filed against the company, which were to date unsuccessful at showing anything other than possible floor mats or driver error being responsible for SUA. In early October, for example, the NBC News reported that Toyota yet again prevailed in an SUA lawsuit against it.
However, later that same month, the LA Times reported that an Oklahoma jury found that electronic defects were indeed responsible for causing SUA in a 2005 Toyota Camry which “caused it to accelerate out of control and crash into a wall, killing a passenger and seriously injuring the driver.” The jury found that Toyota was guilty of “reckless disregard” in the case after defense software forensic experts convinced it that there were indeed, as the EE Times stated, fatal flaws in Toyota’s electronic throttle source code.
Toyota, stunned by the $3 million verdict and its implications, moved quickly to settle the case. Toyota continued to strongly argue—at least publicly—that SUA was not caused by electronic issues; but privately, the company must have worried that the jury verdict was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. As a result, Toyota apparently decided that it had more to lose by going through hundreds of trials than in reaching a broad settlement agreement. Already, Toyota has reached a settlement in another lawsuit in West Virginia. I’ll continue to report on the proposed settlement as it becomes public, and especially whether Toyota now admits that there were software defects in its electronic throttle control software after all.
In other IT snafu news, Yahoo Mail experienced outages for days last week due to a hardware problem in one of Yahoo’s storage systems beginning Monday night. Yahoo, after steadfastly refusing to say how many of its 100 million daily users were affected, finally conceded at the end of the week that about a million users were affected—although I doubt anyone believes that number is really representative, given breadth and depth of the user complaints voiced.
Last week also saw continued problems with Florida’s new US $63 million unemployment system that was launched in mid-October. While the state government insists that the system is generally working successfully, news stories including one at the Miami Herald continue to report thousands of user complaints that paint a portrait of a dysfunctional system. The technical problems are now morphing into a political headache for Gov. Rick Scott, as politicians of all stripes continue their call for an investigation into what went wrong and why it is taking much longer to fix than the state promised.
Finally, IT issues with the Affordable Care Act website, which was rebooted 16 days ago, continue to be reported. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that thousands of people who thought they had enrolled for insurance actually weren’t because their enrollment records were never transmitted to insurers. The Obama Administration insists that problems with enrollments are being quickly solved, but the New York Times says insurers beg to disagree. In addition, several states continue to report trouble with their health insurance website implementations, with Oregon’s being termed an absolute fiasco. Past history gives me great confidence that additional IT-related problems will surface well into the foreseeable future.
Toyota Decides to Cut Its Losses over Sudden Unintended Acceleration Lawsuits
Yahoo Apologizes for Embarrassing Email Outage
Florida’s New Unemployment System Woes Now Becomes a Political Issue
Of Other Interest …
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.