On Tuesday of this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) initial analysis of dozens of car data event recorders in Toyota vehicles involved in accidents discovered that the cars’ throttles were wide open and their brakes not engaged. This has led, the WSJ says, to an early conclusion by the NHTSA, that driver error was the cause for the accidents rather than a problem with cars’ the electronic throttle.
Almost immediately after the WSJ story came out, Toyota announced that its own analysis of some 2,000 accidents since March of this year had uncovered no cases of electronic throttle malfunctions. In this Bloomberg Businessweek story, Toyota claimed that in “virtually all” the accidents were caused by driver hitting the accelerator when they thought they were hitting the brakes.
NHTSA, now put into a uncomfortable spot by the spate of stories, in turn stated that it had not reached any conclusions about unintended acceleration and electronic throttles being its cause or not. NHTSA has two on-going investigations into the issue, one by NASA and the other by the National Academy of Science (NAS). According to this AP story, a NHTSA official told the NAS panel last month that NHTSA investigators only could find were sticking pedals and floor mat entrapment issues, however.
The New York Times then published a story yesterday in which Toyota seemed to soften its position a bit, and conceded that sticking pedals and floor mats had caused sudden acceleration in cars, but that those incidents had not led to many accidents.
Toyota also put itself into a bit of bind with its claims earlier this week about driver error being the cause of sudden acceleration, since it has long argued in court cases that its data event recorders were not reliable sources of information, yet now it was claiming exoneration based on those very same data event recorders. In addition, Toyota data event recorders usually activate only when a car’s airbags are deployed, so any sudden acceleration occuring during normal driving that doesn't lead to accidents is not usually available for analysis.
Furthermore, critics of Toyota point out that the number of driver complaints of sudden acceleration increased four-fold since Toyota introduced its electronic throttles.
The NHTSA investigation is scheduled to conclude at the end of next year. I suspect several more little firestorms will erupt before then.
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.