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Automotive Safety Smoking Guns: It’s Not Just Toyota

Posted in auto industry, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Crash Testing, Dodge, Ford, General, GM, Recalls, Safety by Kurt Ernst | April 24th, 2010 | 2 Responses |

Toyota has taken a lot of heat in recent months, primarily for their failure to promptly disclose known problems with their accelerator pedal assemblies. A new report from the American Association for Justice, designed to highlight the real world benefits gained from litigation against automakers, points out several “smoking guns” from other automaker that you may not be aware of.

Late 1970s Chevy Malibu Gas Tank:

Everyone knows about the problems with Ford’s Pinto and it’s propensity to burst into flames when struck from behind, but how many know that a similar problem existed with late 1970s Chevy Malibus? Their gas tank was prone to fire in the event of a rear-end collision, just like the Pinto. Chevrolet was aware of the problem, but calculated that a redesign would cost $8.40 per vehicle manufactured. Paying restitution to the families of the anticipated 500 fatalities would cost only $2.40 per car. Chevy opted not to redesign to Malibu, until litigation forced manufacturers to build gas tanks that could withstand a substantial rear impact.

‘Illusory Park’:

Automatic transmissions manufactured by both Ford and Chrysler in the 1970s and 1980s would occasionally indicate ‘Park’, when the transmission was really located just outside of ‘Reverse’. A sudden jolt, such as a door closing, could be enough to move the transmission into Reverse, putting the vehicle in motion if the motor was running. Some 90 injuries (some fatal) were attributed to this defect, and an interoffice Ford memo indicated that engineers were aware of the problem as early as 1971.

The problem resurfaced at Chrysler in the 1990s. In 1994, Chrysler safety managers advised installing a shift interlock that required a driver to depress the brake before a car could be shifted out of Park. Chrysler’s executives rejected the request, as it would have added an additional $9 per vehicle manufactured.


Front seats were perhaps the weakest part of any vehicle, particularly in the event of a rear end collision. While stronger seat designs were available, they weren’t mandated under crash test safety regulations. GM, for example, demonstrated a seat that cost an additional $1 more per unit, but could have reduced rear-impact injury levels by as much as 90%. The lack of NHTSA standards was especially evident in some vehicles manufactured by Chrysler: the 1996 Chrysler Sebring front seats could withstand 3,300 pounds of force, yet the 1997 Dodge Ram pickup seats could withstand just 605 pounds of force.

The report is interesting reading, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of its findings. The Firestone tire delamination problem is documented, but I never believed the manufacturer was entirely at fault for their tire failures. Any product, if not used within its design specification, can and will eventually fail. Drivers need to be more aware of the condition of their vehicles, and improvements like tire pressure monitoring go a long way towards increasing safety. What we eventually learn from Toyota’s recent troubles will result in safer cars from all manufacturers.

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2 Responses

  1. GIZMO says:

    NASA is coming on board and hopefully will have the stature to make things happen by simply pointing out that there need to be adequate “black boxes” on all new vehicles to keep track of all the “fly-by-wire” systems increasingly used to keep engine power, fuel economy and emissions control competitive. Especially considering that Stability Control Systems will be mandatory in two more years. “Safety Systems” such as ABS, Traction Control and Stability Control all depend on the same basic hardware items and are assumed to be good things but recent events have shown that potentially great harm as well as potentially great good can result. A lot of harm can slide under the radar in the general context of increasing overall safety, much of which might simply be due to over-zealous police activity anyway. Local police are under lots of pressure to keep their numbers up to justify continuing to receive big federal handouts. Lots of drivers have simply given up partying, at least while drinking, and are staying at home instead.

    The model for these “black box systems” is found in the airline industry, with latest models of jet transports recording over 700 channels of data at routinely twice/second, with the rate increased during periods of rapid change, for periods of 17-25 hours. These data are easily studied by third party computers and software. Car companies like Toyota would not have to be anywhere around. Toyota’s refusal to share data, claiming that there is only one “special computer” in the country capable of accessing this data is pathetic anyway.

    Toyota claims that they have never encountered any defects in their “electronics systems” and therefore they are confident that such defects do not exist and apparently this has played well enough with NHSTA but not with others. Toyota has tried to pass things off as being due to such things as gas pedal entrapment under floor mats or throttle stickiness which supposedly can be cured by inserting a magic metal shim. Then to make absolutely sure that they are covered, they install a “software fix” so that the applying the brake is sure to disengage the throttle if it depressed, while protesting that the brakes in the normal course of driving are strong enough to over-power the throttle every time anyway. Toyota has the position that they have never encountered UA (Unintended Acceleration) not due to (or at least explainable by) some simple mechanical factor as described. Many drivers report simultaneous UA and loss of brakes and this passed off by Toyota as driver error, with the driver mistakenly pressing down the gas pedal believing that he is pressing the brake pedal.

    UA with or without loss of brakes is supposedly rare but the figures are difficult to evaluate. There is the immediate problem of data collection and issues of self-reporting. Many drivers might not have recognized it for what it is, or simply failed to report it, thinking they would not be believed or fearing Toyota’s well rehearsed counter-attack on those reporting these defects. Many drivers experiencing such defects might be dead, having perished in single car accidents with the police declaring that they must have gone to sleep, or suffered from some medical condition, or merely been driving dangerously in the first place.

    NASA can stimulate the one study appropriate to study these things. Many drivers with vehicles supposedly repaired by Toyota report continuing problems with UA and loss of brakes. Thus we have a good population of vehicles to study, those reported to have a higher incidence of defects. Many of these vehicles should be fitted with adequate “black box” systems, collecting data from the large numbers of sensors and command modules already on board. For example if something suspicious happens the driver could harvest the data immediately by down-loading it to a laptop computer via a USB cable or by merely swapping out a data card such as are used in digital cameras, without disturbing the data remaining in a large data buffer on board.

    Web cams are dirt cheap and widely available. One pointed toward the driver’s feet and tied in with the other data on the “black box” would leave little room for disagreement about where the driver was pressing with his feet.

  2. Kurt says:

    Gizmo, excellent points all. Here are my feelings:

    1) Black boxes will potentially reduce fatalities by allowing more detailed accident reconstruction, but they have a dark side as well. What will stop an insurance company from using the data to deny accident claims if a driver was speeding?

    2) Very few people have brought up the subject of “tin whiskers” in relation to Toyota’s UA problems. Tin whiskers are mettalic spikes that grow in tin-heavy metals, such as reduced lead solder. These can cause all sorts of problems, including short circuits that cannot be duplicated. If I were the NHTSA, I’d be focusing a lot more effort on this angle, because this will be a potential problem with all electronics in the post ROHaS world.

    3) While there are certainly cases of UA, I believe the majority of problems reported are driver confusion (i.e., drivers mistaking the gas for the brake). Two recent Pruius accidents have been documented as such, so how do you prevent this from occuring in the future? How can you mandate that drivers pay attention to their actions?