Opinion: Toyota's Acceleration Problem and Carwashes

Brett A. Emison Comments
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By now, most of us have heard something about Toyota’s multiple recalls stemming from its ongoing sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) problems. Though this deadly problem has only recently received much mainstream media attention, Toyota and safety experts identified SUA problems as early as 2003. Unfortunately, Toyota cannot fully remedy this defect until it determines what really causes it. So far, the automaker has rejected the most likely culprit — electronic malfunction.

This could be significant for carwash operators because some evidence suggests that conditions within carwash facilities may help trigger SUA incidents or put them at greater risk to experience such occurrences.

I’ll expand on that in a moment, but first let’s take a look at SUA as it relates to Toyota.

History

Toyota learned of its sudden acceleration problem as early as April 2003. By March 2004, the Center for Auto Safety identified the electronic throttle (a relatively new technology at the time) as the most likely culprit for sudden unintended acceleration problems in 2002-03 Camry and Solara models, as well as the 2002-03 Lexus ES 300. Despite the reports, Toyota denied any problem existed.

Even as sudden acceleration claims mounted, Toyota continued to deny there was a problem. Instead, officials blamed SUA incidents on driver error and later targeted incompatible aftermarket floor mats as a reasonable cause. In October 2009, Toyota acknowledged that its original equipment floor mats could potentially cause SUA and recalled millions of vehicles. Then in January, Toyota recalled millions more vehicles because of “sticky” gas pedals.

To date, Toyota has refused to acknowledge that SUA could be caused by faulty electronic throttle controls, citing its own testing which did not reveal a link.

Electronic Throttle Problem

Experts across the nation have identified Toyota’s electronic throttle control as one of multiple causes of the sudden acceleration problem. Today’s modern throttles utilize sensors, microprocessors and electric motors rather than a steel cable and pulleys to send gasoline to the engine. Toyota began implementing these drive-by-wire systems in its 2002 Camry and Solara models. The Los Angeles Times found that complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles shot up after Toyota installed these systems. For some Toyota models, SUA complaints surged more than 500 percent after these electronic systems were adopted.

Antony Anderson, a Britain-based electrical engineering consultant who investigates electrical failures and has testified in sudden-acceleration lawsuits, told the Times: “With the electronic throttle, the driver is not really in control of the engine. You are telling the computer, will you please move the throttle to a certain level, and the computer decides if it will obey you.”

Sean Kane, an independent safety expert and head of Safety Research & Strategies (SRS) has studied sudden acceleration problems for years. SRS has identified more than 2,200 separate Toyota SUA events. Kane is convinced there are multiple sources of the sudden acceleration problem, including electronic malfunctions.

“These incidents are coming in right and left where you can’t blame the floor mats,” says Kane, who called Toyota’s SUA problem “widespread and complicated.”

SRS research indicates a significant number of SUA events could not have been caused by floor mats or “sticky” pedals.

Similarly, a recent scientific study from Quality Control Systems Corp. found that the electronic throttle control is the likely source for the Toyota sudden acceleration problem. The QCS study shows that sudden acceleration is substantially higher in Toyota vehicles with electronic throttle controls than for identical vehicles with traditional mechanical controls. Speed control complaints were higher for vehicles with electronic throttle controls, even among vehicles not yet subject to Toyota’s multiple recalls.

Electromagnetic Interference

Like any electronic device, Toyota’s electronic throttles are susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Electromagnetic interference is a disturbance that interferes with an electrical circuit caused by either electromagnetic conduction or electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic disturbance may interrupt,

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