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Could Non-Toyota Vehicles Face Unintended Acceleration?

Posted: Feb 02, 2010 10:56 a.m.

Toyota’s public image has taken a beating recently, after the automaker was forced to halt sales of eight popular models over concerns they could face a problem with sudden, unintended acceleration.  Some engineers, however, warn that the problem may not stay confined to Toyota products.

The Detroit Free Press explains, “In today's complex cars, a cell phone, satellite radio or even a restaurant's large microwave could -- in theory -- cause the accelerator to surge out of control, according to engineers familiar with electronic engine technology.”  Toyota believes that its problem is mechanical, caused by two parts in the accelerator pedal mechanism that may begin to stick over time, with normal wear.  Experts, however, say that the complex electronics found in modern cars could easily trigger the same problem. 

The Free Press explains, “Most automotive engines today are governed by sensor-driven throttle systems. Controlled by finely calibrated software, the systems can be thrown out of whack by signals from cell phones or microwave towers, engineering experts said.

Toyota believes that electronic interference has not contributed to the incidents of unintended acceleration brought to its attention so far.  Kicking Tires notes, “Toyota says its throttle-control system has fail-safes for such an occurrence and these parts would return a specific error when brought in for repair.”  So far, the automaker says, it hasn’t seen that error in vehicles that, customers claim, have faced the unintended acceleration problem.

But engineers warn that electromagnetic interference could lead to unintended acceleration in many modern cars.  John Liu, a Wayne State University professor of electrical and computer engineering, told the Free Press “This problem is well-known to all automakers. If you can solve this problem, you would be a multibillionaire.”  But, he warns, “The expertise for preventing signal jamming rests in the Department of Defense, not the automakers or their suppliers.”

There is, however, a failsafe Toyota neglected to build into its cars that could help drivers counteract the problem.  Kicking Tires explains, “Since the most recent Toyota recall, many analysts are calling for Toyota and others to add ‘smart brake’ technology.”  Smart Braking, also known as brake override, is a simple concept: if the driver depresses the brake pedal firmly, it overrides the throttle control, “thus canceling any acceleration, intended or otherwise. Most European and luxury automakers and Nissan already use smart brake technology, but Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota do not.”

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