Thursday, February 10, 2011

Toyotas Are Not Death Traps

By The Lost Motorcyclist, February 2011

Still seems weird to me, a guy who drives a motorcycle having to explain why my Toyota is not a death trap.

With the debate still raging about Toyota's "sudden unintended acceleration", it seems to me that everybody is losing the perspective.

The story that keeps emerging is that Toyota was sitting on its hands doing nothing about sudden unintended acceleration, while all the other carmakers had already built in a brake pedal override, to prevent runaway full throttle acceleration. This is a very narrow point of view.

There is a far more serious problem with front wheel drive cars than SUA. It is losing control in a curve, and possibly sliding sideways and rolling over. I'm not saying this happens to everyone, but it happens much more than sudden unintended acceleration. It kills more people, and it is more difficult for even a fairly good driver to control.

Knowing that skidding in a curve was killing so many people, Toyota had made their goal to put stability control on every Toyota model. The Electronic Stability Control is much more difficult and expensive to make than the "Brake Override". And it would save hundreds of times more lives. This is where Toyota was going, and still is going, despite the billions of dollars lost with the SUA witch hunt in America.

But still, with all the Toyota bashing going on, you might think that Toyota was doing nothing to improve car safety.

Brake overrides are a useless feature for anyone who knows how to turn off a car engine, or put it in neutral, or use the brakes properly. But an Electronic Stability Control would actually save hundreds of lives. While it is easy to learn how to turn off the engine in an emergency (hold the button to a count of three, and you have maybe a minute to remember this and do it) it is actually quite difficult to control the rear end spin out on a front wheel drive car. (Accelerate and turn the steering wheel against the skid, and you have .5 seconds reaction time to do this or you are too late).

The fact is that although it is very cheap to put in a brake override, unfortunately it involved adding lines of code to the acceleration system. Which in turn makes sudden unintended acceleration, or maybe some other fault, more likely. One way Toyota has made its cars reliable over the years by trying to stay a bit back from cutting edge technology. Reliability is not glamorous, but many older customers like it.

When Toyota does innovate, they try to make it worth while, like making the car safer in rollovers or skids. They were on the right track, and I hope all this hysteria does not deter them from being the standard that other car makers must live up to. Because we all benefited from that.

Audi found a way twenty years ago to mostly prevent drivers from using the wrong pedal. They put in a lockout that prevented the driver from selecting any gear unless their foot was on the brake. That put a stop to Audi SUA problems. According to Wikipedia, on Automatic Transmission,
"In many modern cars and trucks, the driver must have the foot brake applied before the transmission can be taken out of park."
Of course that is only a front line defence, and can be defeated by a determined person by putting their foot on the accelerator when the selector is in "Drive", and then forgetting that they moved their foot from the brake to the accelerator, and then the accident is waiting to happen. I don't know if all Toyota have this brake lockout feature, but with many times more cars than Audi, they will still have some problems with extremely forgetful drivers.

How to put a Toyota Highlander in "Drive" from
  1. Place the key in the ignition and turn to the "On" position. The Highlander does not need to be turned on, but the key does need to be turned to "On" to shift gears.
  2. Press the brake pedal and push the lock release button on the shift lever.
  3. Slide the shift lever until it lines up with the "D" for drive.
Picture: Our Matrix heading out of town with the snow cleared off the windshield first.


  1. Brake override systems have gained a lot of attention since the Toyota SUA controversy. One might think that adding brake override would be a 'no-brainer.'

    However, reality is often more complicated than a first impression might suggest. Engineering a brake override system requires interpreting 'what the driver intends.' Simply derating the engine whenever the brake pedal is depressed can creates second stage issues in situations such as rocking the vehicle out of snow, rolling away from a stop on a rising road, not to mention 'heel and toe' performance driving. Engineers also have to consider 'fail safe' aspects of the design - what happens in the case of input errors?

    An example familiar to most motorcyclists is the 'kickstand interlock' - if the rider puts the bike in gear while the kickstand is down, the engine will shut off. Although this safety feature seems reasonable, in fact motorcycle discussion groups are replete with threads about problems which trace back to malfunctions in that simple device.

    In the much more complex world of automotive systems, especially where involved functions such as electronic stability control are also implemented, extending these systems to include brake override is nontrivial.

    However, industry analysts expect brake override functions to pretty much become a standard feature on cars over the next few years. But adding this feature will, of course, not solve the problem of driver stupidity (not to mention those pesky ambulance chasers).

  2. From your link to Electronic Stability Control:

    "The NHTSA requires all passenger vehicles to be equipped with ESC by 2012 and estimates it will prevent 5,300-9,600 annual fatalities once all passenger vehicles are equipped with the system."

    5300 if fatalities a year estimate is accurate, it is far more than the claimed runaway acceleration deaths.

    The 2011 Toyota Matrix will have ESC and brake override standard.

  3. The NHTSA estimate that equipping all passenger vehicles with ESC 'will prevent 5,300-9,600 annual fatalities' is based on an analysis of previous accidents that would in all probability not have occurred, had the vehicles been ESC-equipped.

    However, ESC is not capable of repealing the laws of physics, and if previous experience with risk compensation is any predictor, benefits on the scale of the NHTSA projection will not actually be realized.

    And neither ESC or brake override are capable of solving of solving what the NHTSA/NASA study refers to as 'human error' and 'pedal misapplication.'

  4. Risk compensation should only happen where there is a perceived risk. Most drivers are unaware of the risk in a front wheel drive car, of a spin out when they take their foot off the gas in a corner. On the other hand, merely by advertising "Electronic Stability Control", some drivers will push their luck not even knowing what the risk is.

    I don't know how the NHTSA came up with that number, and you are probably right that Electronic Stability Control would not save as many lives as that. But after I experienced the rear end coming around on a wet road a few years ago, I would not mind having an ESC equipped car. But then I might drive faster with ESC. It would seem there is no way to win the car safety game.

    From your NHTSA link, I found some new information: In the Santee crash, a previous driver of the car had reported to the dealer that the accelerator pedal had become trapped under the floormat. Apparently nothing was done about that. It was later discovered that the floormat was not the correct one for that model.

  5. A $21 Check Prompts Toyota Driver to Wonder Who Benefited from Class Action

  6. Replies
    1. But now that the U.S. won't investigate Toyota unwanted acceleration, the frenzy seems to be winding down. (More correct to say "U.S. won't continue this already too long investigation, as the results continue to indicate driver error.)