Is It Years or Mileage?

By Margie Burns

Want to win a million dollars? Go to, which is now holding a “Million Dollar Competition for Unintended Acceleration Research,” to “attract the best thinkers in the world to apply themselves to determine what is really causing sudden unexpected acceleration in vehicles.”

“The rules, which will be announced shortly, will challenge participants to demonstrate in a controlled environment a repeatable factor that will cause an unmodified new vehicle to accelerate suddenly and unexpectedly.”

As Edmunds notes, “every car company has received complaints from consumers relating to vehicles that suffered unintended acceleration. Many incidents are not fully addressed by recalls.” Toyota itself advertises on that “Our electronic controls are fail-safe.” The Edmunds contest offers to prove the statement false, in effect. The mystery has not been resolved by congressional hearings.

House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., is doing his part to further investigation. Towns issued a subpoena to Toyota Feb. 26 for “all documents relating to Toyota motor vehicle safety and Toyota’s handling of alleged motor vehicle defects” in recent lawsuits against the company. Towns criticized Toyota for “systematic disregard for the law and routine violation of court discovery orders in litigation.”

The committee has numerous Toyota documents from an earlier subpoena from a former senior lawyer for Toyota, Dimitrios Biller, managing counsel in the Product Liability Group of Toyota USA from 2003 to 2007. The newer subpoena, which asks for response by March 12, attempts to expand the investigation.

In their publicly released statement, Towns and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that attorney Biller “led the defense of some of the largest tort cases filed against Toyota ... Earlier this month, news reports surfaced regarding accusations Biller had made regarding Toyota’s efforts to hide “evidence of safety defects from consumers and regulators, and fostered a culture of ‘hypocrisy and deceit.’

“Included in the documents is a memo, authored by Biller to his superiors at Toyota, noting that Toyota has failed to produce any emails or other electronic records in response to discovery orders. Additionally, the Committee has found multiple references to secret ‘Books of Knowledge’ that were kept in electronic form, in which Toyota engineers kept their design and testing data across all vehicle lines and for all vehicle parts. The Committee now has evidence that Toyota entered into multi-million dollar settlements in tort cases where they feared that the plaintiff’s lawyer was getting close to discovering the existence of the ‘Books of Knowledge.’”

Towns wrote, “People injured in crashes involving Toyota vehicles may have been injured a second time when Toyota failed to produce relevant evidence in court. Moreover, this also raises very serious questions as to whether Toyota has also withheld substantial, relevant information from NHTSA.”

The immediate issue, obviously, is the safety of some Toyotas. Apparently the incidents of runaway acceleration have not happened with brand-new cars. They are not happening as a Toyota model is being driven off the dealer’s lot. So the unknown problem must be developing with passage of time, or with mileage, or both. 

Testimony at congressional hearings suggests that the acceleration problem must be electronic or computer-based, debunking explanations of a floor pad or a sticky gas pedal.

So what kind of wear affects an automobile’s computer program? After all, since wear is inevitable, surely a software design must factor in wear. However, the fuel system computer, which generates electrical pulses to open individual fuel injectors, is complicated.

Duration of the electrical pulses is determined partly by a device called the Throttle Position Sensor (TPS), which is supposed to tell the fuel system computer whether the throttle is open or closed. An intermittent electrical fault could give a false reading. If the electrical fault is a crack across part of the TPS, it could be very difficult to find, because it could come and go like an intermittent short.

As to how a crack in a Throttle Position Sensor could come and go, one possibility is expansion and contraction in different temperatures. Also an automobile engine produces a lot of vibrations; and the electrical environment in a car can be fairly turbulent, with voltage swings and multiple on-offs that could affect the TPS — one of the important interfaces between the driver and that computer we call a “car.”

A longer-range issue is that of corporate accountability. Toyota has not said whether it has compiled a database of unintended-acceleration complaints and incidents, although it may have done so. An exact and accurate record of reported complaints and incidents would include the identity of every vehicle so far involved in SUA, including model, year and serial (VIN) number; the date of the incident; and the mileage on the car’s odometer at the time.

Those data could be used to compare the date of each incident with the date of the car’s manufacture. The lengths of time between manufacture and incident could be compared, for all vehicles; and the mileage recorded at the time of the incident could be compared for all vehicles involved.

Toyota may already have these data, but if so, like other car companies, it has not released the information.

The broader issue is one of public disclosure where public safety is involved. One problem is the use of gag orders in lawsuits including class actions. Sealed records are justifiable in many court cases and are understandable from more than one perspective. But a sealed record in a product-liability case, while the plaintiff in the immediate case may be satisfied, sets up the possibility that future customers may be harmed by an unresolved problem.

Full and open investigation might also serve the ends of justice in another case. It could turn out to exonerate a driver, Koua Fong Lee, who is serving eight years in a Minnesota prison after being convicted of vehicular homicide. Lee, who has always maintained his innocence, was driving a Camry in a 2006 crash in St. Paul, Minn., when the car suddenly zoomed at top speed up a freeway exit ramp and rear-ended an Oldsmobile stopped at a red light. Three people died from injuries received in the crash and Lee, a Hmong immigrant, was charged and convicted despite his insistence that he tried unsuccessfully to brake the car.

There is such a thing as being a good corporate neighbor. If Toyota managers knew or should have known that their data could help Lee, then they should have helped him.

Margie Burns is a Texas native who now writes from Washington, D.C. Email See her blog at

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010

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