Examining Toyota's Acceleration Problem
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Joining me to talk about Toyota's troubles and why it's so hard to pinpoint exactly what's causing the acceleration problems is Ken Bensinger, he's a business reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Ken, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. KEN BENSINGER (Business Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Thank you for having me, Michele.
NORRIS: Yesterday Toyota was steadfast that sudden acceleration is a mechanical, not an electrical problem. How has Toyota been able to determine that?
Mr. BENSINGER: Well, Toyota has pinpointed two things. They say that floor mats getting trapped on the accelerator pedal. Separately, on some models, that there's a pedal that can stick in a depressed or partially depressed position. I don't think anyone argues that there is some truth to that. But they themselves have admitted it doesn't explain all cases. And Congress said something to the effect that it doesn't explain about 70 percent of the cases.
In response, Toyota has said they have done thorough electronic testing of different electrical systems and they have found no evidence whatsoever that there is any fault that could cause sudden acceleration. That said, there's a lot of skeptics out there, there's a lot of independent scientists and others who question those and say that Toyota hasn't been sufficiently thorough in the testing of the electronic systems, which today can make up about 40 percent of the value of a car.
NORRIS: So, you noted these independent engineers in at least one case they were able to show how creating an induced electronic short could cause the vehicle to suddenly accelerate and almost race out of control. How do you put that in context with what Toyota is claiming that this is not in any way an electrical problem?
Mr. BENSINGER: Well, it's a very controversial study you're referring to. There's a gentleman at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale who did produce a short that did do exactly what you suggested. Toyota attacked that yesterday saying that it was an unrealistic situation and couldn't be repeated in the real world. Some would say that what they did didn't really get at what the scientist was talking about, which what he was talking about was the idea that there could be a whole world of problems that Toyota hasn't addressed and that Toyota is turning a blind eye to those and only addressing in a very specific literal fashion the particular faults that are brought forward.
The trick with electronic systems is they're extraordinarily complex to analyze and require huge amounts of time and patience to get to the bottom of. And some people are questioning whether Toyota really did everything it could do in that regard, or continues to do everything it can.
NORRIS: Ken Bensinger, help me understand something. A lot of these newer cars have very sophisticated diagnostic systems. So, whether this was mechanical or electrical, why is there no evidence somewhere in the internal reporting system in the car that would help Toyota figure out exactly what's at fault here?
Mr. BENSINGER: That's exactly the argument Toyota has made that they don't see what are known as error codes or engine codes coming up. That's the red light in your dashboard that pops up when it says check engine when there's something wrong. And they said in the absence of those there can't be a problem. But software engineers will tell you that there are problems that don't set off codes. There are bugs in the system that are rare and non-repeatable that don't leave a mark, so to speak, electronically.
And there are kinds of shorts and other things that also wouldn't, and that really gets to the heart of what this Southern Illinois University professor was getting at, which is he was able to produce an error situation without actually getting a code. That's something that's not just limited to cars. We've seen that in aerospace. We've seen that with some horrific plane crashes and other accidents where there's no direct electronic evidence and it takes months, if not years, of research to find the problem.
NORRIS: Would the resolution of this problem be radically different if it turned out that it was electrical instead of mechanical?
Mr. BENSINGER: I think so. This is something we looked at here at the Los Angeles Times, why Toyota seemed so resistant to electronic issue. And the answer is because it's a much bigger kind of problem than it's a mechanical problem. Fixing an electronic problem is much more complex. It also is a little bit more scary in the public eye. When people think about a sticking pedal, they think, fine, swap out my pedal and I'll be okay, or add a little piece to it.
When you think about a computer problem, you start thinking about your desktop that crashes all the time. And that gets very scary when you're talking about vehicles that weigh 4,000 pounds and go 75 miles an hour. People are terrified of that and don't want to think about that. The other issue is litigation, the legal risk is very high because once you start saying there's a potential software or other electronic bug, everyone and their brother will start blaming every fender bender on that whether it's true or not. And certainly a lot of potentially spurious litigation could ensue, that even if Toyota wins, could have it tied up in courts for years.
NORRIS: Ken Bensinger, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Mr. BENSINGER: Thank you very much for the time.
NORRIS: Ken Bensinger is a business reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
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