Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Toyota Electronics and Federal Investigators: Good News; Bad News

"Electronic Flaws Did Not Cause Toyota Problems, U.S. Says"
Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times (February 8, 2011)

"After dissecting Toyota's engine control software and bathing its microchips in every type of radiation engineers could think of, federal investigators found no evidence that the company's cars are susceptible to sudden acceleration from electronic failures, the government said Tuesday...."

Good News, Bad News, and Dead Customers

The Lemming isn't sure quite how irradiating Toyota microchips helps folks figure out whether or not the equipment or software is glitchy. Maybe the idea is to simulate years of use. Of course, heat is a sort of radiation - and there's plenty of that by the engine.

Anyway, it looks like Toyota's electronic control system isn't what (allegedly) killed a few folks - and finally had Toyota recalling a mess of cars.

That's the good news, from Toyota's point of view.

The bad news is that the folks who were killed are still dead - and it doesn't take glitchy electronics to bollix up a car:

"...The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that the sudden acceleration was caused by mechanical problems in some Toyota models — sticking accelerator pedals and floor mat interference — that it had previously identified as causes.

"The findings, reached after a 10-month investigation, neither implicated Toyota nor exonerated it any further than had been the case after the earlier investigation.

"Toyota eventually recalled more than 11 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles globally because of floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals. It also paid three fines totaling $48.8 million, because, the Transportation Department said, Toyota had not reacted appropriately to reports of problems...."

Killing Your Customers and Other Boo-Boos

Toyota had a reputation for good engineering. Then they started selling lethal vehicles. That lapse in quality control was, in the Lemming's opinion, the first mistake.

The second mistake, again in the Lemming's opinion, was (apparently) trying to ignore the fatalities away. Maybe a decision-maker in Toyota decided that nobody would notice a few dead customers here and there. Maybe someone lost a lot of memos, so that decision-makers didn't know what was going on. The Lemming doesn't know.

That was then, this is now. Toyota seems to have stopped making booby-trapped cars: which was, in the Lemming's opinion, a very good idea.

An Executive, an Engineer, and a Set of Data

Another excerpt from The New York Times. This is a marvelous example of how executives and engineers tend, in the Lemming's opinion, to approach reality:

"...'The jury is back,' said Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary. 'The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period.'

"An engineer from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, brought in to help conduct the inquiry, was slightly less categorical but still emphatic.

" 'It's very difficult to prove a negative,' said Michael T. Kirsch, a principal engineer with NASA's Engineering and Safety Center. But the electronic system for throttle controls in Toyotas would require two separate sensors to fail simultaneously in such a way that neither created an 'error code' in the vehicle's onboard computer...."

The Lemming's hat is off to the transportation secretary. It's nice to see such optimism, such certainty, such decisiveness. The Lemming wishes that the data seemed to back up the secretary's optimism - just a little more.

High Tech Or Not - A Mess is Still a Mess

It looks like Toyota's problem was with the low-tech end of their production - not the information technology. Presumably, that's been a tad easier to fix. But that's an assumption.

The Lemming is sincerely glad to have been well away from the process of finding out how Toyota managed to let lethal products get onto the salesroom floor. No matter what culture folks are in - foul-ups on that scale are, the Lemming thinks, embarrassing to deal with. At best.

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