Toyota has faced some seriously bad press about its recall of millions of vehicles due to “sudden acceleration” flaws. It’s now pushing back, intimating that its electronics is not at fault. It’ll be a tough battle, but an important one for future electric vehicles.
Toyota’s forced recall of some eight million vehicles included 2.3 million cars and trucks for issues that may cause the throttle to stick open, with potentially disastrous runaway-car results. Accusations have been leveled at Toyota that the fault in these vehicles lies with dodgy programming or flawed electronics.
The chief source of this is research performed by Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University, who was able to demonstrate “unintended acceleration” in Toyota-produced vehicles. Gilbert even testified at a Congressional hearing on the matter. It precisely this research that Toyota is now calling foul at, pointing out that while Gilbert did indeed cause the acceleration to run wild, he was only able to do so by physically hacking the car’s systems. This involved stripping wires, and working out which ones to cross. As such, it’d pretty much never happen “naturally.”
Toyota is now pointing to physical causes for the problems. In particular, floor mats can become jammed under the pedals, preventing them from correctly springing back under a driver’s foot when it’s lifted off the gas. Combined with a particular troublesome angle on the pedal’s metalwork this is the source of the trouble, according to Toyota (busy redesigning the pedal for a replacement roll-out soon,) and not faulty electronics or software.
But how can Toyota convince the public of this? It’s going to be tricky, especially since even a physical flaw that causes these problems is embarrassing, and indicative of problems in the company’s design, or quality assurance systems. And a software problem, in today’s cars that are jam-packed with electronics, will really grab the public’s imagination. Toyota can hardly reveal its source code as proof, however, as this will expose it to potential hackers–and the concept of hackers tackling a vehicle that you may whizz your family down the freeway in is frankly terrifying. With news that a simple Energizer USB battery charger that’s been on sale for years has been installing a phishing virus, it’s also slightly believable. Instead, Toyota’s going to have to loudly bang on the dodgy floor-mats and sticky pedal drum. Really loudly.
And the other thing to take away from this is that as more and more electric vehicles arrive on the market, accusations of safety-reducing code and electronics flaws are only going to surface in the news more frequently.