An interesting semi-defense of Toyota in the Washington Post written by a mechanical engineering major turned journalist (Why it’s so hard for Toyota to find out what’s wrong, Mar 7). His key argument is that Congress doesn’t understand what it takes to figure out what is driving Toyota’s problems.
It was made painfully clear at the hearings that a number of lawmakers do not understand the process [of how engineers figure out why mechanical things fail]. An exchange between Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Toyota President Akio Toyoda illustrated the problem.
Toyoda said that when his company gets a complaint about a mechanical problem, engineers set to work trying to duplicate the problem in their labs to find out what went wrong. Norton said: “Your answer — we’ll wait to see if this is duplicated — is very troublesome.” Norton asked Toyoda why his company waited until a problem recurred to try to diagnose it, which is exactly what he was not saying.
Members of Congress are generally lawyers and politicians, not engineers. But they are launching investigations and creating policies that have a direct impact on the designers and builders of incredibly complex vehicles — there are 20,000 parts in a modern car — so there are some basics they should understand. Chief among them: The only way to credibly figure out why something fails is to attempt to duplicate the failure under observable conditions. This is the engineering method.
He goes on to discuss the numerous factors that Toyota would have to consider in order to properly know what is going wrong with their cars and how Toyota or the NHTSA would go about testing cars and throttles to determine whether the problems lies in the mechanics (Toyota’s preferred answer), the electronics (what no one in the auto industry wants to be the answer), or software (a possibility raised in the article).
It seems that Toyota is preparing to push through its view on what has caused sudden acceleration and try to shift from being on defense to being on offense (Toyota Moves to Discredit Its Critics, Wall Street Journal, Mar 6). Part of this is posturing ahead of the inevitable litigation. From what I have seen, this is going to get ugly and has the potential to put regulators and the rest of the auto industry in a very uncomfortable position. So far what they have released has been in reaction to the work of David Gilbert a Southern Illinois University professor who has found a way to induce sudden acceleration by monkeying with the electronics of an Avalon. CNNMoney has good description of what is going on (Toyota: Sudden acceleration test unrealistic, Mar 5). They also have this response from a research firm working with Toyota:
Exponent, the research firm hired by Toyota, was able to replicate Gilbert’s results but says that the test presents an unrealistic situation that has virtually no chance of happening in the real world. “For such an event to happen in the real world requires a sequence of faults that is extraordinarily unlikely,” the report continues.
Exponent was also able to replicate the same sequence of short circuits, with the same result, in other automakers’ cars, which would undercut the allegation that the problem would be somehow unique to Toyotas. “Every vehicle from other manufacturers tested by Exponent could be induced to respond with a sudden increase in engine speed and power output,” Exponent said in a fact sheet. “These demonstrations in no way indicate a defect with any of the vehicles tested (including the Toyota Avalon and Camry).”
It is that last point that should worry other car makers. The argument amounts to:
1) Our electronics are basically the same as everyone else’s.
2) If the problem were in the electronics, there should be a sudden acceleration epidemic across all brands.
3) There isn’t an epidemic so the problem can’t be in the electronics.
Toyota only really needs to prove point 1. If they can establish that the electronics are basically the same across all brands. Ray LaHood and company have a huge problem on their hands. There is no way to push Toyota on electronics without causing large disruptions in the auto industry. Maybe the industry could absorb that when F150s were flying off lots. Right now, things are a little dicier. I suspect that Toyota will push point 1 and other automakers will keep quiet on this point. Disagreeing with Toyota means having to establish why your electronics are safe and Toyota’s aren’t. Given that Toyota has yet to figure out what is going on, that is a hard task.