Are Cars Getting Scary Again?

February 16, 2010

There has been a lot of concern in the media about the problems that Toyota has been having with their sticking gas pedals on their gas powered vehicles and the braking problems on their Prius Hybrid vehicles.  The concern is growing into a panic, and Joe White at the Wall Street Journal wrote an article with the alarmist title "Cars Are Getting Scary Again" that questions the complex nature of the modern automobile.

What's scary is that this article was written 20 years too late. The problematic drive-by-wire system in the Toyotas has been in automobiles for over 20 years.  In the late 1980s, the larger BMW 12-cylinder vehicles used it to synchronize and control the two computers that were used to manage the engine.  Over the years, this system has worked so well that The U.S. Department of Transportation has mandated that every vehicle manufactured for sale in the U.S. must have an integrated Anti-Lock Brake and Traction Control system, or drive-by-wire system, no later than the 2010 model year.

In the WSJ article, it stated that the complexity of cars began with the EPA mandated Emission Controls.  For the most part, all automotive complexity has been the result of governmental safety and environmental programs.  Even basic safety systems such as Seat Belts had to be required before manufacturers included them in new vehicles.

It has yet to be proven that the sophisticated electronics have even played a role in Toyota's problems.  Many of the Toyota complaints involve a sticking floor mat that gets caught up with the electronic accelerator pedal mechanism.  Volvo, a brand known for safety, had a similar problem in the middle 1980s that involved cutting and/or replacing the floor mats and replacing the sticking mechanical accelerator cable.  I owned a 1986 Volvo that had this update performed by the dealer.  I still drove the car and lived to tell about it.

Drive-by-wire systems, which basically turn mechanical systems into computer-aided smart systems have been in military aircraft since the 1970s, automobiles since the 1980s, and commercial airliners since the 1990s.  This is a fundamental technology that has been in play successfully for decades, and we should guard against the witch-hunt that this present situation could become.  The media should be adding facts where it has been fanning the fire.

About the Author

Daniel Dillon is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

2 User Comments

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By , February 17, 2010
Hello, I was a Toyota Master Diagnostic Technician for close to 17 years up until 2003 when I opened my own independent shop, (Medford AutoCare Center, Medford, Oregon) and in all those years I drove all model of Toyota vehicles and never experienced any throttles sticking open. I was also certified to work on Hybrids (Prius) when they came to be, and never experienced any brake concerns either. It is my impression that there may be a reprogramming concern involved with the ABS system of the computer that will cure the ABS concern. By the way, when ABS systems fail they fail-safe to NON-ABS braking systems. This means that you have normal braking and only ABS is non-functional. The floor mat concern will also be a simple fix, the only problem there is there are many more cars involve and will just take more time. Time is money in the auto business. What really confuses me is why Toyota has not promoted the fact that Toyota as never to this day been mandated or forced to implement any of their recalls. They have all been self imposed. All in all I truly believe that all car manufactures could stand to learn from Toyota something about quality and serviceability of their own cars.
By , February 27, 2010
Great contribution, M.Fulton! Thank you. For those of us who watch these things closely, the media coverage just hasn't made sense. Toyota's record, even with this recall, is extraordinary.