Can America's best scientists figure out what's wrong with Toyotas? Probably. And chances are, they'll reach conclusions very similar to what Toyota itself has found.
To get to the bottom of the mysterious "sudden acceleration" problems that have plagued Toyota, the government has established two high-caliber probes. Experts from NASA, the space agency, will investigate whether evasive electronic bugs in Toyota vehicles could be causing the cars to speed up without warning—and without leaving a trace of the problem. And the prestigious National Academy of Sciences will convene its own group to study whether the widespread replacement of mechanical systems by electronics—in cars built by virtually every automaker—could be causing sudden acceleration or other safety problems.
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Valid questions. But here's a prediction: Anyone looking for a smoking gun that further implicates the automakers isn't likely to find one. Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide to fix sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that could "trap" the gas pedal, causing the car to speed up. In the United States, 52 deaths have been linked to sudden-acceleration crashes in Toyotas dating to 2000. And complaints about sudden acceleration have surged since the crisis began drawing attention, creating the impression that there's a deeper problem that Toyota hasn't acknowledged. So some critics (and class-action lawyers) are blaming the electronics.
It's possible, although Toyota says it has found no verifiable problems with the electronic throttle controls on more than 40 million vehicles it sold over the last decade. And there are some other obvious explanations. When the government reports are finalized sometime next year, here are some of the likely conclusions:
Drivers are the biggest problem. Automakers and regulators rarely come right out and say this—lest they offend the driving public—but most sudden-acceleration incidents occur because drivers press the wrong pedal. "Ninety-eight percent of the time it's pedal misapplication," argues Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, a Florida-based dealer group that's the top Toyota retailer in the United States. "They genuinely think they're pressing the brake but they're really pressing the gas. Then they panic and press the gas even harder." The other 2 percent of cases are probably due to floor mats, he says.
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There's plenty of data to back up Jackson's claim. A New York driver who crashed a Toyota Prius in March claimed that the car took off uncontrollably as she was pulling out of her driveway. She insisted that she was pressing the brakes as the car crossed a busy street and slammed into a stone wall at 27 miles per hour. But government investigators said the Prius's "black box," which recorded data on the car prior to the crash, showed that the driver hadn't touched the brakes at all. The throttle, however, was wide open.
The government conducted an exhaustive study of sudden acceleration in the 1980s, after a few complaints about runaway Audi 5000s drew media attention and mushroomed into a huge database of supposed sudden-acceleration incidents. In a 450-page report that examined the Audi 5000 and nine models made by other carmakers, investigators systematically ruled out causes that lawyers and armchair critics insisted must have been causing the crashes, such as electronic components, cruise-control malfunctions, magnetic interference, vacuum-hose leaks, and faulty brakes. The ultimate conclusion: "Human factors play a large role in the [sudden-acceleration] problem. Pedal misapplications are the most probable explanation for the vast majority of sudden acceleration incidents in which no vehicle malfunction is evident."
The safety experts at Toyota and the Department of Transportation know this, but another lesson of the Audi scandal was the risk of blaming your own customers for problems involving their cars. Audi was ultimately vindicated, but not before its arrogant, know-it-all stance on the issue fanned the bad publicity and made the automaker look uncaring, which wrecked sales. Toyota has had its own problems dismissing customer concerns, so the company is reluctant to blame bad drivers for mounting sudden-acceleration complaints. But the scientists may make it clear that in most cases, drivers, not Toyota, deserve the blame.
Electronics have improved safety, not compromised it. It's easy to blame the software when something goes wrong and there's no other explanation. But electronics have probably enhanced the safety of cars, allowing automakers to install important safety features like anti-lock brakes and stability control that would be impossible without the computers needed to make split-second, vehicle-control decisions that help prevent crashes. The traffic fatality rate last year fell to 1.1 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, the lowest rate since the government started keeping data in 1954. Much of that is due to stricter seat belt and drunk driving laws, but air bags and other safety technology—often relying on sensors and electronics—also played a role. It would be a travesty if lawsuits or bogus concerns slowed the adoption of technology that makes cars safer. The investigative panels may end up doing drivers a favor by highlighting the extent to which electronics enable safety improvements.
Cars are only going to get more complicated. If electronics do cause any safety problems, now's the time to find out. Aggressive new fuel-economy and emission requirements are forcing automakers to pull out every technological trick they know—and invent others—to make their cars more efficient. Electronics are a huge help because they allow more precise vehicle operation than cables or mechanical systems, which in turn helps raise gas mileage and lower emissions. "There's no way we'd be able to get the emissions we're required to get without electronic throttle control," Toyota Motor Sales president Jim Lentz said at a recent automobile conference. With cars certain to get even more complicated, the scientists investigating sudden acceleration can place an important imprimatur on the technology required to drive into the future. And let drivers drive with a little less worry.