Probe into Toyota throttle control intensifies, and now Chevy Cobalt electric power steering under scrutiny. Is new technology getting ahead of safety?

Are we letting new electronic car control systems outpace development of  fail safe mechanisms at times of failure?

Electronic devices and systems, have, and always will be prone to both unpredictable intermittent and sudden total failure.

When electronic controls and systems are used to control vital systems in cars, such as speed, steering, braking and shifting, there is grave cause for concern.  Added to which an automobile is a harsh environment for electronics.

Toyota’s recent problems with unwanted acceleration have brought these issues into focus. Worries are intensified by the fact that Toyota almost certainly has no clue as to the real cause of these incidents, but have come up with a couple of face saving sham solutions.  More likely than not this will result in larger helpings of egg on the old visage, giving new meaning to “loss of face.”

Today I had my Toyota Camry hybrid out to the dealer to get numbers off the radio/CD/GPS unit which has developed problems.  I understand from the service department this is not infrequent.  They checked the accelerator pedal and confirmed it as a Denso and not CTS.  They checked the recent recall data and said there is a carpet recall.  I told them that the carpet is firmly fixed by stout hooks, and the pedal hung from above, and nowhere near the carpet!  The service tech agreed.  With a twinkle in his eye said, “But we will be doing something to the carpet.”  Now the word so often used by  Click and Clack fits the situation perfectly: – “BOGUS!”  It is also a total waste of everyone’s time.

Toyota’s situation is rapidly deteriorating to farce.

However the issues remain serious.  This report leaves open to question whether under some circumstances the driver can exert any control over a Toyota vehicle at all.

This report gives credence to the belief that the accelerator pedal fix is a smoke screen.

Despite Ray LaHood’s retraction the Houston Police Department have parked their Toyota Camry Hybrids, and they are not involved in the pedal recall!

Toyota now have company with accidents caused by electronic controls in vital places of GM vehicles.  The electronic power steering in the Chevy Cobalt is now under intensive government scrutiny, after failure reports, accidents and deaths.  GM have this system on all their vehicles with engines 2.4 liters or less.  Ford say they will have the system on 80 to 90% of their vehicles by 2012.

From Wikipedia, this is the rational for moving to electric steering: -

[The aim of steer-by-wire technology is to completely do away with as many mechanical components (steering shaft, column, gear reduction mechanism, etc.) as possible. Completely replacing conventional steering system with steer-by-wire holds several advantages, such as:

  • The absence of steering column simplifies the car interior design.
  • The absence of steering shaft, column and gear reduction mechanism allows much better space utilization in the engine compartment.
  • The steering mechanism can be designed and installed as a modular unit.
  • Without mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the road wheel, it is less likely that the impact of a frontal crash will force the steering wheel to intrude into the driver's survival space.
  • Steering system characteristics can easily and infinitely be adjusted to optimize the steering response and feel.

As of 2007 there are no production cars available that rely solely on steer-by-wire technology due to safety, reliability and economic concerns, but this technology has been demonstrated in numerous concept cars and the similar fly-by-wire technology is in use in both military and civilian aviation applications. Removing the mechanical steering linkage in road going vehicles would require new legislation in most countries.]

In pursuit of government mandates to stretch the gallon of gas ever further, manufacturers are forced into these complex high tech systems.  In order to keep prices down the temptation to compromise safety grows by the mandate.

So if this is the way of the future, the same rigorous testing review and oversight will have to be given to automobiles as aircraft.

In addition, it is instructive to note that in the errant Toyota vehicles no OBD fault codes have shown up, and the problem goes away at least for a period of time after re starting.  To me this indicates that like aircraft, automobiles will have to have black boxes, that record data form every sensor, every driver command and computer command.  If this technology was in Toyota vehicles now, I very much doubt any facts about these serious incidents would now be in doubt.  We would then be well on our way to the right fix.

The problem is that the cost of all this is likely to put the cost of vehicle ownership outside the reach of most.  Cost I suspect will not only be prohibitive in terms of cost but maintenance.  The cost of maintaining older high mileage vehicles will put them out of the reach of low income families.  The personal and family car is destined to become a luxury for the few.

This incredible news just in today.  Our government could not get people drunk in a brewery.  Our government seems bought and paid for through out and that’s sad.

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