Toyota may have met in auto engineering professor David Gilbert a latter day version of Richard Feynman whose simple experiment during the space shuttle Challenger clarified the problem.

David Gilbert, associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, as he testified on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brandon / AP Photo)

By Frank James

There was a moment Tuesday during the testimony of David Gilbert, the automotive engineering professor who testified he was able to fool the computer technology on-board Toyota vehicles to accelerate, that was kind of reminded me of Richard Feynman.

Feynman, of course, was the wry Nobel laureate in physics who was on the Rogers Commission that investigated the causes of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident.

There was a lot of back and forth during the Challenger hearings over what role the o-ring seals used in the shuttle's rocket boosters to contain their hot gases within played in the disaster.

A main theory was that cold weather at the time of the launch had caused an o-ring failure.

Feynman, a showman as much as a scientist, performed a simple experiment that changed the whole dynamic of the hearings.

After all the complicated testimony by engineers from NASA and Morton Thiokol, the company that made the shuttle's defective rocket motors, it was Feynman with cup of icewater and a piece of o-ring that cut through the clutter.

He placed a piece of o-ring material in a glass of ice water and noted that the material didn't bounce back in a matter of seconds.

Of all the days and weeks of hearings, Feynman's use of a styrofoam cup of ice water was THE moment everyone remembers.

Fast forward to this week. While there was no moment as dramatic as Feynman's demonstration, Gilbert's testimony had a little Feynman in it.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman asked Gilbert what it took for him to show that a Toyota's circuitry could fail in a way that could lead to unintentional acceleration.

REP. WAXMAN: So, in other words, you discovered a scenario where a failure in Toyota's accelerator pedal sensors would not trigger an error code and would not cut off the engine power in the event of a failure. How long did it take you to discover this problem? Did you spend millions of dollars and spend years studying it?
MR. GILBERT: Well, if I might say, after 30 years of automotive technology teaching of electronic engine controls, I discovered it in about three-and-a-half hours.
REP. WAXMAN: Three-and-a-half hours.
MR. GILBERT: Yes.
REP. WAXMAN: And how much money did this take for you to spend -- to come up with this conclusion?
MR. GILBERT: With the equipment that I had on hand, basically very little, if anything.

Definitely a Feynman moment.

categories: Accidents and Disasters, Congress, Consumer Safety, Transportation

1:44 - February 24, 2010