The Congressional hearings focusing on sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles are set to begin today by the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform tomorrow. It will not likely be a fun day for Toyota executives nor for those at the US Department of Transportation.
In a letter dated yesterday by the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Henry A. Waxman to Secretary of U. S. Department of Transportation Ray LaHood, Chairman Waxman asked Secretary LaHood how could the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) possibly investigate electronic or software related defects in vehicles when it has no electrical engineers or software engineers on its staff of 635?
That's a good question.
NHTSA told the Energy and Commerce staff "they have the authority to contract for such services as needed" but apparently they have not done so, the Committee letter claims.
[Update: In testimony in front of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Secretary LaHood said that there are two EEs on NHTSA's staff of 125 engineers. He made no mention of software engineers.]
The Energy and Commerce Committee also sent a letter to Toyota asking why it was saying publicly that the unintended acceleration problem was fixed and that it wasn't caused by vehicle electronics when the company was also privately telling its staff that; (a) "sticky pedals" were not the cause, and; (b) causes of unintentional vehicle acceleration were "multiple" and "hard to identify."
Energy and Commerce Committee members may also ask Toyota about a story yesterday appearing on ABC News. In the story, Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University showed, "A flaw in the design of Toyota's electronic acceleration system prevents the car's onboard computer from detecting and stopping certain short circuits that can trigger sudden speed surges ..."
"As a result, Gilbert told ABC News, the Toyota computers will not record an error code, nor will they activate the 'fail safe' system designed to shutdown the power and put the car in the 'limp home' mode."
You can watch the video of the demonstration here. You judge for yourself whether what the professor showed was a "flaw" or not.
According to recent public statements by Toyota, one might conclude that this should not be able to happen, however.
As I said, it will not be a fun day for Toyota. I'll let you know what happens.
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.