Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tears trump facts

Yesterday's Congressional testimony about the Toyota runaway acceleration problems featured a tearful Rhonda Smith testifying under oath about how she "lost all control of the acceleration of" a Lexus ES350 sedan in October of 2006. (Lexus is, of course, Toyota's luxury nameplate.) Here's a transcript (made by me so there might be the odd mistake):

On that thursday, October the 12th 2006, I was driving from my home in Sevierville and upon entering the interstate I accelerated with everyone else into the flow of traffic. At this time I lost all control of the acceleration of the vehicle. The car goes into passing gear and the cruise light comes on. I put the car into all available gears including neutral, but then I put it in reverse and it remains in reverse as the cars speeds to over 100 miles per hour down the interstate. I placed both feet on the brake after I firmly engaged the emergency brake and nothing slows the car. I prayed for God to help me. I called my husband on the bluetooth phone system. I knew [breaks down into tears]... I'm sorry... I knew he could not help me but I wanted to hear his voice one more time. After six miles, God intervened as the car came very slowly to a stop. I pulled it to the left median. With the car stopped and both feet still on the brake the motor still revved up and down. At 35 miles an hour it would not shut off. Finally at 33 miles per hour I was able to turn the engine off.

I'm sorry, but I don't believe her. It is certainly plausible that the cruise control kicked in uncommanded. It is even possible that the interlock that would normally have disengaged the cruise control as soon as she touched the brake failed. It is even possible that the brakes failed to slow the car below 100 MPH (although this begins to really stretch the limits of my credulity). But it is not possible that she "put the car into every available gear" including neutral and reverse, and that that failed to slow the vehicle. For that to have happened, the transmission would have had to first fail in a way that transmissions never do, and then somehow magically fix itself so that subsequent inspection of the vehicle would reveal no problem. That is simply not possible.

There are a number of other aspects to her story that I find highly questionable. We are supposed to believe that she's speeding down the interstate at over 100 miles per hour in traffic and yet she somehow still has the presence of mind to call her husband on the phone. I suppose that's possible, but it means that she wasn't focused 100% on trying to figure out a way to stop. Finally, at the end of her story, she flat-out contradicts herself when she says that first she was able to stop the car (with the engine still revving "up and down"). But then she says that the car was still going 35 miles an hour, and that at 33 miles an hour she was "able to turn the engine off." So which is it? Was she stopped, or going 33 miles an hour down the left median?

There are other troubling questions as well. She says that at 33 miles an hour she was "able to turn the engine off" but she made no mention of trying to turn it off before, only of stepping on the brake and shifting gears. And doesn't "33 miles an hour" seem suspiciously precise, particularly after making a point of saying that the car would not shut off at 35?

It doesn't add up.

I do believe that the car accelerated out of control. But the rest of her story sounds like cover to me. I don't know what happened after the incident started, but I'm pretty sure that whatever it was, it isn't what she testified to.

There are a lot of other weird things associated with this whole Toyota kerfuffle. Steve Wozniak's report of trouble with his Prius turned out to be at best overblown and at worst a publicity stunt. And it is also mighty odd that, as far as I can tell, not a single incident of unintended acceleration has been reported outside of the United States.

I'll go out on a limb and predict that when all the dust settles this will turn out to be a replay of the Audi incident.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal (which content should of course nowadays be taken with a big chunk of sodium chloride) reports that Rhonda Smith sold her Lexus after her incident, and that the new owners have driven it for 27,000 trouble-free miles.


Jared said...

When you say that this has only happened in the US (meaning it might be misreported by the "victims") I can't help but think of this:

Disclosure: I am the owner of a 2001 Totoya Corolla and my problem with the car is that it barely accelerates when I slam on the gas.

Unknown said...

I found this to be a little odd also. After lloking into I had to wonder if this was a set up by the other car companies to boost their sales. At this point in the game Toyota is the one company who was not Affected by the market fall out and for this to come along only means blood in the water for the big three.

John Dougan said...

I think that if we're lucky it'll be a replay of the Audi situation. Unfortunately there is a potentially critical difference...the US Govt. didn't own 2 competing car companies at that time.

That aside, some traffic I've read on another mailing list would indicate that, just like last time, there are some significant human factors design problems involved.

Quote from :
"But not Toyota vehicles. Of course they do have a POWER OFF button but it is a single power button *overloaded* with three functions: OFF, ACCESSORY and ON.
Further, according to Toyota manual, for an emergency stop the driver needs to press that power button for more than 3 (three) seconds."

As the author goes on to elaborate, in an emergency 3 seconds is a rather long time. I suspect that other errors of this type will eventually be found.

Ron said...

> the US Govt. didn't own 2 competing car companies at that time

An astute observation.

> there are some significant human factors design problems involved ... for an emergency stop the driver needs to press that power button for more than 3 (three) seconds

Whether that is a design flaw is far from clear. Shutting off the engine makes you lose your power steering, which could easily make the situation worse, not better. If there were no delay we'd be hearing about people hitting the button inadvertently while driving and crashing because they couldn't steer.

John Dougan said...

Audi replay for the win: