Out of control and out of options

Much has been made — an appropriately so — of Toyota’s problem with gas pedals that stick.

A scenario that led a New York Times story on the problem captured the horror of it all:

The 911 call came at 6:35 p.m. on Aug. 28 from a car that was speeding out of control on Highway 125 near San Diego.

The caller, a male voice, was panic-stricken: “We’re in a Lexus … we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck … we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … we’re approaching the intersection … hold on … hold on and pray … pray …”

The call ended with the sound of a crash.

The Lexus ES 350 sedan, made by Toyota, had hit a sport utility vehicle, careened through a fence, rolled over and burst into flames. All four people inside were killed: the driver, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, and his wife, daughter and brother-in-law.

If only we were better trained as drivers for emergency situations like the one these poor people faced. The solution seems simple: Turn the engine off or shift it into neutral, anything to stop the effect of a runaway accelerator.

Toyota’s guidelines on what to do in a similar situation:

• If you need to stop immediately, the vehicle can be controlled by stepping on the brake pedal with both feet using firm and steady pressure. Do not pump the brake pedal as it will deplete the vacuum utilized for the power brake assist.

• Shift the transmission gear selector to the Neutral (N) position and use the brakes to make a controlled stop at the side of the road and turn off the engine.

• If unable to put the vehicle in Neutral, turn the engine OFF. This will not cause loss of steering or braking control, but the power assist to these systems will be lost.

• If the vehicle is equipped with an Engine Start/Stop button, firmly and steadily push the button for at least three seconds to turn off the engine. Do NOT tap the Engine Start/Stop button.

• If the vehicle is equipped with a conventional key-ignition, turn the ignition key to the ACC position to turn off the engine. Do NOT remove the key from the ignition as this will lock the steering wheel. (h/t: Matt Quintanilla)

I generally don’t read comments attached to YouTube videos, but this one offered some actual insight into the Electronic Control System:

All of the signal and mechanism are connected into the ECU and ECU controls the engine/tranny. You couldn’t turn the engine off if ECU fails. You couldn’t shift the gear into neutral if ECU fails. But you could apply brakes eventhough the ECU fails.

All of which makes one wonder whether our cars are getting too electronically sophisticated, to the point where we’re just along for the ride?

  • Tyler

    So basically, everything is controlled by a little computer – there’s no direct physical linkage between the accelerator pedal and the throttle.

    It sounds to me like Toyota’s software engineers need to redesign their software. It terrifies me to think I would be unable to turn off my car in an emergency situation like this – none of my instinctual responses (put in neutral, turn off engine, etc) would have worked in the above situation. THAT is poor design.

  • justin h

    Car and Driver did a great article on how to deal with this. In particular, they tested several cars to see how well the brakes would stop a car at different speeds under full throttle. Even in a 500 HP at 100 MPH, the brakes will stop the car.

    Toyota aught to update their software so that three taps of the stop/start button turns the car off, in addition to waiting 3 seconds to turn it off. In an emergency, 3 quick taps is a lot faster than 3 seconds; 3 seconds at 100 MPH is a lot of distance.

  • mulad

    It’s still not clear whether there’s just one problem or multiple problems. Clearly, the pedals can get stuck in the floor mat — this is pretty easy to reproduce. But there are two other possible issues, which may be compounded by brake issues.

    I understand that Toyota has managed to reproduce an issue where the accelerator sticks on its own, possibly due to some corrosion in the linkages. However, the possibility of some sort of ECU failure has gotten everyone buzzing outside of the company.

    I’m not sure if a dead ECU could prevent a normal automatic transmission from shifting — particularly into neutral — aside perhaps for the “tiptronic” semi-manual ones.

    Loss of vacuum or worn/overheated brakes are probably contributing to the problem. An engine operating at full throttle may not generate much vacuum, if any (note that old vacuum-operated windshield washers used to have the problem that they’d stop functioning while a vehicle was pushing hard uphill). The vacuum reserve could get depleted if the driver were to dab the brakes a few times.

    As for the brakes themselves, tests by Consumer Reports and others have shown that they work well on the first attempt to stop if the driver really tries the first time — it may take longer than normal, but will stop the car. But, the brakes will heat up from a first attempt and will take much, much longer to stop the car the second time. The initial speed also matters a lot — if you catch it before going past 50 or 60, it’s no big deal, but if the car is already past 100, you’ll be standing on the pedal for a long time.

  • abc

    >> The solution seems simple: Turn the engine off or shift it into neutral, anything to stop the effect of a runaway accelerator.

    I must be missing something. I can see panic freezing the driver and passengers, but somebody had the presence of mind to use a cell phone to call 911. It seems to me “neutral”/“off” should have passed through the thought process somewhere between “panic” and “cell phone”.

    Most technology is so safe the idea of a contingency plan doesn’t even occur to us. Perhaps >>we’re just along for the ride because it’s part of our collective mindset.

  • Lily

    I have taken the driver’s seat floor mats out of both my Mazda MPV and Honda Civic, simply out of fear that they could get caught up with the accelerator or brake. Is Toyota the only maker with this issue?

    I do like information on what to do in an emergency like this. I do remember my father, now dead 25 years, telling me to pull over in a ditch, put it in neutral, and turn off the ignition in case of emergency. It is advise I have never had to use. However, he was also the same Dad who told me to keep an eye on those floor mats…..!

  • Mike M

    Automotive engineers who think that there is ANY justification whatsoever for a computer system to to be able to override a driver’s option to shut off the ignition – DESERVE TO BE EXCORIATED! There’s just no excuse…

    (Gee, my motorcycle has a kill switch….)

    Mike – BSME, (machine designer)