It’s becoming a case of dueling experts
, with the rapid-fire technical exchanges undoubtedly flying over the heads of the Toyota owners who just want to know if their cars are safe or not. But there’s a lot at stake — including the reputation of what was only recently America’s number one automaker — and the charges and counter-charges are coming thick and fast.
The most recent salvo was extravagantly staged by Toyota
, specifically to counter a Feb. 22 report by Brian Ross of ABC-TV claiming that sudden acceleration is an electronic problem that can be easily duplicated in the lab. In his story, Ross took a ride with David Gilbert, an automotive technology professor at Southern Illinois University, who graphically demonstrated how he could make a Toyota run away at will. It was terrifying footage, but was it fair to Toyota?
The company says, emphatically no. Gilbert rewired and re-engineered his test car to create conditions “that are virtually impossible to occur in real-world conditions,” Toyota said. Toyota also charged that Ross’ video used misleading images of a racing tachometer
supposed to have been taped in a speeding car. (It was actually filmed when the car was stopped, ABC later acknowledged). And, finally, Toyota said that Gilbert was in the pay of Sean Kane, “a paid advocate for trial lawyers involved in litigation against Toyota and other automakers.”
Gilbert did not return phone calls, but he did issue a statement saying that he will review new information over the next few weeks. "I am pleased that further examination of these safety and acceleration issues is taking place," he said. ABC also published a response story, quoting Kane. "The study was simply can we look at the Toyota system and see if the system can miss some important faults," Kane said. "And the answer is yes, it can miss some important faults."
On Monday, Toyota staged an elaborate demonstration (complete with live webcast) in front of reporters. The goal, successful, was to show that its own engineers and hired-gun technical consulting firm Exponent could make any car run away with itself. On stage, as it were, they proved this dramatically with an international auto cast that included a Chrysler Crossfire, a Chevrolet Malibu, a BMW 335, a Mercedes E-Class, a Subaru Outback and a Ford Fusion. “Don’t try this at home,” Exponent said.
A procession of Exponent and Toyota engineers showed that getting cars to run wild requires a pretty heroic manipulation of wiring, not to mention adding hardware — specifically a 200-ohm resistor not likely to be encountered in nature. According to Dr. Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford and director of its Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS), “You fundamentally cannot rewire a circuit and expect it to perform as directed. [Gilbert’s] report draws conclusion based on a circuit that is fundamentally different than that on a Toyota.”
But, I asked, what about the 60 or more Toyotas that have experienced unintended acceleration after getting fixed at the local dealerships? Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said, “We are aware of those reports of vehicles having problems after the repair was made. There are only a few we’ve been able to confirm and verify, and in some cases the repair was not done completely. We believe that if the repair is done properly, it will be effective….We continue to look at it, but at this juncture we believe the causes are well-known and that remedies are addressing many of them [emphasis mine].”
This still leaves many questions unanswered — and unexplained occurrences of sudden acceleration are still on the table.
And all of this would have more credence if Exponent were not as much of a hired gun as Gilbert (who also failed to respond to calls). The House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which held hearings on the Toyota problems, has repeatedly raised questions about Exponents’ own preliminary report
— which tends to exonerate electronic causes. The report “has serious deficiencies,” said a House Committee letter to Toyota President and CEO James Lentz on March 5.
Lentz has said the company is “confident that no problems exist with [Toyota’s] electronic throttle control system,” but Exponent admitted its report (the only one commissioned by Toyota) is preliminary. “We neither claim to have looked at all the issues, nor to have opined on the cause of the incidents of unintended acceleration that have been reported."
The House Committee, led by Congressmen Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak, is plainly getting a bit frustrated with Toyota. “It may be that Toyota has done “extensive” and “very rigorous” testing of its vehicles for electronic defects,” the committee said last week. “But if so, the results of this testing should have been provided to the committee.”
Once again, an event designed to “clear up” the unintended acceleration issue has only further muddied the waters.