Runaway Cars!: How to Make Sense of the Story

What may be the latest industry-wide/technologically-inherent safety cover-up in the auto industry is being pinned exclusively on Toyota by the powers-that-be.  Having just bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, U.S. overclass political and media entrepreneurs are almost certainly trying to add a bit of Japan-bashing to their efforts to revive a dying and massively dangerous capitalist pipe-dream.

The scandal in question, of course, is random runaway acceleration in new-make automobiles.

There are two possible explanations for why Toyota is taking the heat:

1. “This is Toyota’s Firestone”:   Toyota either made a mistake, or its manufacturing standards are worse than its peers’ standards;

or

2. This is bigger and deeper than Toyota:  Toyota is the leader in moving toward hybrid and all-electric cars, in which very large on-board batteries provide some or all of the vehicle’s engine power, and there’s an unacknowledged flaw in schemes to electrify cars.

Beginning at BMW in the late 1980s, more and more cars have incorporated Electronic Throttle Control (ETC), or “drive-by-wire.”  With ETC, the commands transmitted to the engine throttle from the gas pedal are no longer mechanical cables, but electronic signals from a computer that arrive via a data “wire.”  Hence, “drive-by-wire.”

Beginning about a decade ago, sensing the onset of peak oil, the car corporations started getting serious about making hybrid and all-electric cars.  Toyota was and still is far out in front of this movement.

So, is ETC an inherently dangerous technology?

And is the flaw in ETC being compounded by the move toward hybrids and all-electrics?  The potential problem here is that the huge batteries in hybrid and all-electric cars emit some serious electro-magnetic intereference fields.  Are these fields prone to disturbing the “drive-by-wire” commands flowing between the new cars’ gas-pedal and engine-throttle computers, thereby compounding the flaws inherent in ETC?

There are three ways to test this hypothesis:

1. Is there evidence of an ETC (as opposed to mere mechanical issues with pedals or floor mats) problem in known runaway-car incidents?

2. Are hybrids more prone to runaway acceleration than all-petro cars?

3. Is Toyota the only maker that has runaway-car problems?

On the first question, here is a good summary of what’s known.

Especially telling, in my humble opinion, is this summary’s report that there may be a cover-up of this issue being managed by the Orwellianly-named National Highway Safety Traffic Administration:

An electronic cause [of runaway acceleration] is championed by Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Nader-inspired Center for Auto Safety, who dispatched a Freedom of Information Act request to NHTSA in search of documents on its investigation. Examining that data, he said it appears that the agency’s work amounts to less than the thorough investigation cited by the official.

On the second question, another expert blogger reports:

Meantime, another federal official close to safety regulators says NHTSA is investigating whether electromagnetic interference (EMI) could be causing glitches with vehicle speed controls in all cars and trucks, including Toyota products.   A Wayne State University engineering professor who consults with the industry believes cell phone signals, radar pulses, and other ambient electrical static, could be causing the problem.   USA Today reports a British expert on EMI believes the pulses are a “likely cause” of some of Toyota’s acceleration problems.   It is the basis of two class action lawsuits against the automaker.

Toyota dismisses the allegations, saying late Tuesday: “After many years of exhaustive testing — by us and other outside agencies — we have found no evidence of a problem with our electronic throttle control system that could have caused unwanted acceleration. Our vehicles go through extensive electromagnetic radiation testing dynamically.”   Engineers have studied this since the 1970’s but have never conclusively linked the issue to a specific problem.

Nevertheless, a guy who knows a little about computers, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, says his Prius is having runaway acceleration problems.

As to the third question, Toyota is not the only maker with runaway issues.

Even more telling, again to my own eye, is this:

Feds ponder brake overrides on all cars to stop runaway acceleration

So, the jury is still out on all this.  But it is hardly clear that the official story — the inexplicable return of shoddy Japanese manufacturing — is the proper verdict.

Meanwhile, there is a whole other sense in which the phrase “runaway cars” is exactly the right story we need to track.  Can humanity survive this make-or-break century without ending our insane reliance on automobiles for everyday movement?  Stay tuned…