Last week, Toyota Motor Corp. announced a recall of 2.43 million hybrid vehicles around the world for a potential stalling issue. According to Toyota, the vehicles might not enter a “failsafe” driving mode in response to certain hybrid system faults. The failsafe mode is intended to allow the vehicles to possess sufficient power to “limp home” when the gas-electric propulsion system has a problem.
Toyota stated that if the failsafe mode isn’t entered when required, the vehicle would lose power and stall. Power steering and braking would remain operational, it says, but stalling at high speed could increase the risk of a crash. No crashes have been reported as a result of the issue, but multiple stalling incidents have been reported to Toyota.
A software update that will be available soon should fix the issue, Toyota went on to say. It should be noted that Toyota admitted somewhat cryptically that the vehicles were involved in an earlier recall that “did not anticipate this new condition remedied with this recall.” This statement seems to refer to Toyota’s 2014 Prius voluntary recall due to overheating electronics, which could cause stalling as well, and which Toyota had said a software update would fix.
Whether the latest Prius software update does or does not fix the problem will likely be a bone of contention in a class action lawsuit filed against Toyota in February. In the lawsuit, Prius owners claim that the 2014 software update was not only ineffective in addressing the stalling problem but degraded their cars’ performance, and that Toyota knew it.
What was really needed was a fix to the hybrid engine itself, involving the replacement of its intelligent power module, but Toyota didn’t want to do it because it would be too costly, the lawsuit alleges. A longtime Toyota dealer in California, who is suing Toyota on separate grounds, seems to support the lawsuit’s contention as well.
The current recall affects 1.25 million vehicles in Japan, 807,000 in the United States, 290,000 in Europe, and 3,000 in China, with the rest scattered around the world. While the vast majority of vehicles recalled are Prius automobiles, some Auris hybrids are included as well. Toyota said that certain 2010 to 2014 model year Priuses (or Prii, the company's preferred plural term) and 2012 to 2014 Prius V vehicles are involved in the U.S. recall.
The recall of the Prius wasn’t the only one Toyota announced last Friday. The auto manufacturer is also conducting a safety recall of some 168,000 2018 to 2019 Tundras and Sequoias, and 2019 Avalon vehicles in the United States. The reason is that due to “inappropriate programming in the airbag electronic control unit (ECU), a fault may be erroneously detected during vehicle startup which would disable one or more of the sensors used to detect crashes.” The fault could cause the side and curtain airbags and/or front and knee airbags to fail to deploy in a crash. A software update to the ECU should fix the problem.
Nissan's Faulty Automatic Braking System
Nissan Motors is also trying to avert a safety recall of its own. According to a story by Digital Trends, the front grille radar module Nissan uses for its automatic emergency braking (AEB) system seems to be malfunctioning in its 2018 Sentra vehicles, and possibly other models as well.
According to Nissan, the AEB “uses radar technology to monitor a vehicle's proximity to the vehicle ahead, giving the driver audible and visual display warnings to help the driver reduce the vehicle's speed if a potential frontal collision is detected. If the driver fails to respond, the AEB system can apply the brakes, helping the driver to avoid the collision or reduce the speed of impact if it is unavoidable.”
In response to the Digital Trends story, Nissan admitted that the radar module, made by Bosch, sometimes deactivates itself, which then disables the cruise control and emergency braking system. Warning lights also appear on the dash indicating the radar is not working due to an obstruction. At least one complaint has been made to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the problem.
Nissan told Digital Trends that it is working to the get replacement parts to fix the problem, which should be available very soon. While the automaker indicated that the problem impacts only a “limited population” of Sentra vehicles, owners of Nissan Armadas, Altimas, and Muranos have reportedly claimed similar issues.
That the radar issue would impact other Nissan vehicle models wouldn’t be surprising, since Nissan announced with great fanfare in 2017 that its automatic emergency braking system became standard equipment on “2018 Rogue and Rogue Sport, Altima, Murano, LEAF, Pathfinder, Maxima and Sentra (except manual transmission-equipped and all NISMO versions) models, as well as select Armada models.”
Flawed Welds in Fiat Chrysler Jeep Wranglers
The Nissan radar issue is minor in comparison to the welding defects affecting 2018 to 2019 Fiat Chrysler Jeep Wranglers. In a bit of déjà vu, the automaker reportedly issued both a recall and a stop-sales order last Friday because of the possibility of the vehicles crashing “without warning.”
According to a recall notice that has not at this time been posted on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recall website, some of the Jeeps “may have been built with a front track bar bracket weld located off the seam potentially resulting in the bracket separating from the frame.” The separation, the recall notice warns, can cause “reduction in the steering response.” The problem is vividly shown in this YouTube video.
The recall is said to affect around 18,000 Jeep Wranglers, of which some 800 at least suffer from the defective welds. At least one Jeep Wrangler owner reported the automaker is going to replace his vehicle, although it is not known whether other owners will be offered a repair or a new vehicle.
Recently, Subaru had to send 293 of its 2019 Ascent SUVs to the car crusher because they were missing critical welds caused by improperly programmed robotic spot welders. It will be interesting to see whether the welding problem on the Jeep Wranglers is another issue related to robotic-welding programming or something different, like a welding calibration error that slipped through unnoticed.
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.