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

Toyota Motor Corp. 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 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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