Consumer Reports: How Technology Can Curb Accelerator Breakdowns

Toyota’s well-publicized problems with sudden, unintended acceleration have led Consumer Reports to issue a list of suggested fixes automakers can implement to prevent such problems.

These include designing cars so that sustained pressure on the brakes can stop them even if the gas pedal is fully depressed, making it easier to turn off the engine in an emergency, and making it easier to shift into neutral when the car accelerates out of control.

Toyota has recalled over 8 million cars and trucks worldwide because of the acceleration problem and is facing a Congressional probe over the issue.

Hit the Brakes

One suggestion is for automakers to engineer cars so a sustained braking force can stop them in a reasonable distance, even with the accelerator pedal fully depressed.

Speeding vehicles can require up to 1,000 feet to stop, but this distance is too long, Consumer Reports stated. One method to reduce this distance is to use smart throttle technology that allows the brakes to override the throttle. Toyota is adding this technology to its vehicle line, according to the consumer advocacy group.

However, this suggestion assumes that drivers have maintained their cars in good condition and that the brakes are in good repair. It also assumes good road and weather conditions. Not all drivers maintain their vehicles well or have lots of life left in their brake pads, and there’s no guarantee that the weather or road conditions will be good when a car accelerates suddenly on its own.

That’s a problem, acknowledges Mike Quincy, an automotive specialist at Consumer Reports. However, the organization has no choice but to make very broad general recommendations, he told TechNewsWorld.

“We have to assume neutral road and weather conditions and a neutral state of the brakes,” he said. “We can’t answer to how it will be if the brakes aren’t good or the roads are wet. If a consumer doesn’t change his brakes or maintain his car, all the advice in the world won’t help.”

The Quick Stop

Another fix suggested by Consumer Reports is that automakers make it simpler to turn off the engine in an emergency.

While push-button ignition systems are becoming more widely used in cars, drivers may not know how to use them to shut off their engines in an emergency. Many Toyota vehicles let owners shut off the engine by pressing the button once when the vehicle is parked, but they require a sustained three-second push when the vehicle is moving. Many owners don’t know that, according to Consumer Reports.

Other manufacturers let car owners shut off the engine when the car is in motion by pressing the ignition button twice within three seconds. “That allows even a panicked person to shut the engine off, and we think push-button ignitions should work that way,” Consumer Reports’ article reads.

Isn’t switching off the engine when a vehicle is in motion dangerous because you lose power steering and other functions? Yes, but it’s better than the alternative, Quincy pointed out.

“It is dangerous to turn off the engine when a car’s in motion, but look at what happened to the state trooper in California — he was in a rented Lexus and was unfamiliar with the car, so when it accelerated he kept on pushing the ignition button although the software in that car requires you to hold down the button for a number of seconds,” Quincy said. “Shutting off the engine is better than a high-speed crash.”

Quincy was referring to the August 2009 accident that killed off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, their daughter and his brother-in-law while they were in a rented Lexus. Initially, it was believed that floor mats in the vehicle caused the gas pedal to stick, but San Diego County Sheriff’s Department officials probing the incident reportedly spoke to a dealership employee who told them the car had previously experienced sudden unintended acceleration.

In a panic situation, people tend to hit the ignition button over and over again instead of pressing it and holding it down, Quincy said. “We recommend automakers make it easier to turn off the engine by pressing the ignition button a couple of times.”

Shifting Into Neutral

A third suggestion from Consumer Reports is that automakers make it easier for drivers to shift into neutral gear when the vehicle is in motion. The advent of gated and electronic shifts can make it difficult to find neutral in a stressful situation.

Of course, throwing a car into neutral when the accelerator is stuck could eventually burn the engine out, but going to neutral at least gives the driver a chance at survival, Quincy pointed out. “When the engine is racing and you shift into neutral, you’re disengaging the transmission, and you still have your brakes,” he explained. “So you can steer safely to the side of the road and stop. So what if the engine blows up? Is it easier to replace an engine or to replace a life?”

Toyota Sings the Blues

The death of Mark Saylor and his family was perhaps the most horrific in a series of accidents due to sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) of Toyota vehicles. Over the years, Toyota had dismissed SUA complaints and claimed they were caused by floor mats blocking the gas pedal.

The automaker began shipping a gas pedal fix on Feb. 1 to resolve the problem.

Auto experts Safety Reports and Strategies issued a report Feb. 5 stating Toyota’s SUA problems span several years and many models. While Toyota vehicles have had problems with floor mats, sticky accelerator pedals are not the cause of SUA, the report asserts.

The report calls for Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to look more closely at the automaker’s vehicle control systems, including the electronic throttle control assembly and the associated sensors.

“One significant safety factor — the brake-to-idle design — is critical for vehicles with electronic throttles,” Safety Reports’ Sean Kane told TechNewsWorld. “While many cars have this, it is notably absent in Toyota and Lexus models.”

A brake-to-idle feature lets a driver override the throttle by stepping on the brakes even when the throttle is fully open. This lets drivers regain control of runaway vehicles, Safety Reports said.

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