Blog Post

It Wasn't the Software: Toyota Finds Driver Error (Not Code) to Blame

Toyota Motor Corp. (s TM) said today that in “virtually all” of the reports it has investigated involving drivers who said they hit the brakes and ended up accelerating, the driver was actually pressing the gas pedal. In the world of personal computers and the web, you might say the problem exists between keyboard and chair. With Toyota’s cars, the automaker is saying (and early findings in a federal investigation reportedly suggest) that in at least some cases, the problem arose between foot and accelerator.

Back in February, Apple (s AAPL) co-founder Steve Wozniak made headlines complaining that his Toyota Prius had a “scary” software glitch. Not long afterwards, the automaker recalled more than 145,000 of its 2010 Prius and Lexus HS 250h hybrids for a software update in order to resolve “inconsistent brake feel” related to the anti-lock brake system. In addition, documents surfaced showing that federal regulators had asked the automaker back in 2007 to install software to prevent sudden acceleration in its vehicles (an action Toyota didn’t take until this year).

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 100 people have now sued Toyota over car crashes they say were caused by electronics defects, such as glitches in throttle systems controlled by computers. But Toyota now tells Bloomberg that it has reviewed about 2,000 reports of unintended acceleration since March without finding any evidence of problems with the cars’ electronics.

Toyota’s statement today comes on the heels of a Wall Street Journal report this week on initial government findings supporting the automaker’s position. Official findings have yet to be released, but according to the WSJ’s sources, preliminary results of an ongoing federal analysis suggest that at least some Toyota drivers in accidents were unknowingly stomping on the gas instead of the brakes.

The investigation, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has been looking at data from the “black box” recorders in Toyota vehicles involved in accidents where the driver filed a complaint saying the brakes “failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.” according to the Journal report.

How is Toyota hunting for bugs? According to Bloomberg, the automaker has been evaluating system software line by line and “bombarding vehicles with electromagnetic interference at more than twice the level that would occur in real-world conditions,” while also running other tests.

Reviewing each line of code in a car is a massive undertaking. By some accounts, “high-end cars now have more software than jets,” the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Caroline Michaels told us earlier this year. And the New York Times has written that vehicles are now “packed with up to 100 million lines of computer code,” and have “at least 30 microprocessor-controlled devices.”

This week’s findings hardly mark the end of the safety saga for Toyota, which has recalled more than 8 million vehicles to fix dangerously sticky accelerators and floor mats that can fatally pin down the gas pedal. And we’re still likely only at the beginning of a larger wave of anxiety over computer- and software-dependent cars — especially as electric cars roll out in the next few years with even more reliance on software, computing and communication networks to manage a host of services and battery charging.

For the auto industry — where Michaels told us there has historically been room for software suppliers to “manipulate the system” and employ less-than-stellar marketing practices to inflate their expertise — it’s high time to nip this in the bud. Recently we’ve seen some steps in the right direction, like a new database system that will allow automakers to get a more detailed look at potential software suppliers’ strengths and capabilities. Here’s hoping that evidence of driver error in these Toyota cases doesn’t overshadow the persistent need to keep improving cars’ safety as much as their smarts.

Image courtesy of Toyota

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8 Responses to “It Wasn't the Software: Toyota Finds Driver Error (Not Code) to Blame”

  1. There is a huge safety issue about which I feel you should know.

    Safety defects described below related to most vehicles

    1. Driver presses the wrong pedal due to bad car design.

    If the driver cannot pivot his or her right foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal without lifting driver’s heel from the floor it is a bad car design. The cause is the spatial location or orientation of the pedals – drivers anticipate the location of foot pedals (which they cannot see). The driver may attempt to depress a pedal in the location where he or she expects it to be, rather than where it actually is. The result may be unintended actuation of the accelerator pedal when the intention was to depress the brake.

    2. Driver presses the wrong pedal due to poor blood circulation.

    Due to an inbuilt force of habit: The brain sends a message to the muscle and joint sensory receptors, which tells what parts of the body are moving and pressing the brake and assumes that this action is taking place. The brain is convinced that the driver is pressing the brake and when the vehicle is not stopping the brain says to press harder. This happens due to poor blood circulation. The pressure of the right thigh against the seat restricts normal blood flow and hampers proper circulation which can cause the brain to send error message to the muscle and joint sensory receptors by pressing the wrong pedal.

    3. Bad job designing the position of the accelerator pedal.

    Toyota in particular has done a poor job designing the position of the accelerator pedal in most of its vehicles. It is too far to the right and when the driver steps on the pedal the upper leg tries to move to the right. The driver tries to prevent that movement by holding the leg straight in an uncomfortable position which increases pressure on lower back paraspinal muscles and leg muscles, therefore increasing muscle spasms, inflammation and pain in lower back and leg area. After some time driving in that uncomfortable position, depending on the driver’s age, the driver cannot pivot the right foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal without lifting the heel from the floor, which requires more complex muscular responses and thus longer time than simply pivoting the right foot. In this case, braking requires lifting the foot from the accelerator, moving laterally to the brake pedal and then depressing it. All of that increases stopping distance in the case of emergency braking by 20%.

  2. keiJidosha

    Once again, greedy lawyers working for opportunistic clients crucify a sclerotic auto company with premature conclusions via unsubstantiated allegations spread by an irresponsible press.

    It’s Audi 5000 time all over again.

    The prius issue is not bad software, it’s bad drivers.

  3. John M

    Why do articles like yours keep pointing to Toyota as the problem? When the NHTSB itself says it has received ‘only’ 3000 complaints about Toyota Prius’s in a 10yr period, and during that time Toyota has sold over 1Mil cars, that amounts to .3% which by anyone’s book would be meaningless, yet articles like yours are trying to convince people it’s some conspiracy on Toyota’s part to keep injuring people.

    Please publish an article calling out all the stupid drivers (Mr. Sikes, Lady in WI, etc) who can’t drive and blame others.

    • I’m certainly not trying to convince anyone of a conspiracy. I am in favor, however, of continuing to improve the quality of vehicle software and keep raising the bar on safety as long as there’s room to do so.