It was reported by CNN last month that Toyota engineers found an electronic software problem that caused “sudden unintended acceleration” in a test vehicle during pre-production trials. CNN said this information came from to a company engineering document it obtained which was translated for the news organization. The 2006 document, marked “confidential,” was said to recount the results of an adaptive cruise-control software test in a model internally designated the 250L, a vehicle later sold as the Lexus 460 in Japan and Europe. The document reportedly said a “fail-safe overhaul” would be needed for another model in production, internally designated the 180L, which the company says was later sold as a Toyota Tundra.
Toyota insists that the document shows no such thing. The automaker continues to deny that any sudden unintended acceleration in any of its vehicles was caused by electronic systems. But it was reported that three translations of the report, including two commissioned by CNN after Toyota’s objections, found that engineers raised concerns that the adaptive cruise control system would start the car moving forward on its own. CNN says the document states that “the cruise control activates by itself at full throttle when the accelerator pedal position sensor is abnormal.”
Our firm has been investigating a number of cases involving sudden, unintended accelerations reported in Toyota vehicles. In each of those cases the crashes were severe, resulting in fatalities. To date Toyota has never conceded that an electronics or software problem could be responsible in any way for sudden acceleration in its cars and trucks. In fact, it strongly denies it.
Michael Pecht is director of the CALCE Electronics Products and Systems Center at the University of Maryland. Pecht, a mechanical engineering professor, was assigned to look into the sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles as a consultant for Congress. He said the newly-found document should have been included in any investigation, and he questioned why it wasn’t shared with NHTSA, NASA (which assisted the highway safety agency’s review) and Congress. Pecht stated, referring to the document, that it “looks like an example of electronics causing a car to suddenly accelerate.”
Toyota has said it didn’t share the document with the NHTSA because “the test and the document had nothing to do with unintended acceleration, or a defect, or a safety flaw of any kind.” The company says the document was meant to alert other engineers to the pre-production problem, so lessons learned could be shared. Neither the test vehicle nor the adaptive cruise-control system cited in the document have been sold in the United States, according to Toyota.
The engineering document was originally provided to CNN in Japanese, with an English translation. When Toyota complained about what it said were inaccuracies in the original translation, CNN says it retained a Tokyo-based translation house with expertise in automotive and technical matters to independently retranslate the document. That translation, according to CNN, backed up the first, which found that Toyota engineers recorded a “sudden unintended acceleration” in the 250L’s adaptive cruise control. That control was designed to slow the vehicle if sensors detected an object ahead and accelerate the vehicle when the obstacle clears.
After Toyota claimed that both of the translations were in error, CNN says it commissioned a third translation by another firm in the United States with expertise in automotive and engineering translations. CNN said that, according to the third translation, Toyota’s engineers stated that a test was conducted on the 180L “to prevent the accelerator malfunction that caused the vehicle to accelerate on its own” in an earlier test of the 250L.
Neil Hanneman, an independent automobile safety engineer based in California, examined all three translations of the document at CNN’s request and concluded that in 2006, Toyota did in fact have an electronics issue. He stated:
This is a tangible, repeatable, fixable issue that they’ve identified in this vehicle. It’s related to software issues, which is something Toyota has said is infallible in their systems.
Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, is another analyst who reviewed all three translations and who is concerned over the safety issues at Toyota. Ditlow, who is well-respected in the auto safety field, had this to say:
What the memo tells me is that there was an electronic problem that caused unintended acceleration in an earlier-model Lexus – the 250 – and they wanted to avoid the same problem occurring in the 180.
To say that Toyota isn’t very happy about the CNN report is perhaps an understatement. In fact, the auto maker is extremely upset and has said so. But it’s undisputed that the 2006 document – labeled “confidential” – was never turned over to government investigators at NHTSA. The agency later investigated accelerator problems in Toyota vehicles and concluded – as Toyota had – that the causes were not electronic, but rather sticky gas pedals, bad floor mats, and driver error. I suspect we will be having more to say on this matter in future issues.
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