The Toyota Motor Corp. recall uproar is spurring a re-evaluation of the way new automotive technology should be designed—and how much consumers should know about how it works.
Features such as electronic throttle controls, computer-controlled braking, push-button “keyless” ignition systems, new transmission designs and gas-electric hybrids present challenges to drivers who are accustomed to the well-known conventions that guided the designs of the analog cars of yesteryear.
For starters, how do you even turn on one of these new cars? For decades, you did it by twisting a key, holding it for a few seconds, then releasing it as the engine kicked on. Turning the car off involved twisting it in the opposite direction.
But in cars with push-button keyless ignition systems, including some Toyota and Lexus models, turning off the thing requires the driver to “push and hold” the dashboard-mounted start button—the opposite of the process many drivers have mapped into their brains, says Paul Green, who studies how drivers interact with vehicle technology at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
Is this new approach to shutting off a car dangerous? Some of the accidents at the center of the Toyota recall crisis have raised that issue. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigators have noted in their reports on accidents involving sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus cars that drivers apparently didn’t know how to shut down their cars. Toyota says it is considering redesigning its keyless ignition systems to offer a faster way to turn off their cars in an emergency.
Say you did turn off a speeding car. Would you be safe? Depending on the vehicle’s design, you might suddenly lose the power-steering boost and wind up with a car that’s still going fast but is now even harder to control.
How about electronic brakes? Some auto makers design their computer-controlled braking systems to always favor the brakes if the system senses that the driver is pressing both the brake and the accelerator at the same time.
But not all auto makers designed their vehicles with these so-called brake-override systems. Toyota didn’t, and no U.S. regulation said the company had to program its brakes the same way as certain European rivals. Now, in the wake of criticism, Toyota says it will reprogram the braking systems in all its cars to provide brake override as of 2011, with many models moving to the technology this year.
Another subject of debate among engineers and vehicle-safety experts is how much backup ought to be built into electronic systems, such as electronic throttles. Toyota is facing lawsuits from owners who say the company should have designed its electronic throttle-control systems with a mechanical backup in case the electronic system malfunctioned. But eliminating the weight of a mechanical system is one reason why auto makers are moving to electronic throttle systems in the first place.
The federal government doesn’t approve new medicines for sale until manufacturers prove they are safe. With cars, it’s the other way around: New technology often gets scrutinized only after a safety problem surfaces. So should the feds develop new, more-detailed standards for safety-critical systems that are controlled by computers and electronic relays so that all cars function in roughly the same way?
The NHTSA says it plans to take a “new look” at the concerns surrounding electronic systems—including worries that electromagnetic interference can throw them off. The agency is also weighing a move to require brake-override systems in all vehicles. On Tuesday, it announced that it will seek more information from Toyota about whether the company moved quickly enough to recall potentially defective vehicles.
Industry executives are wary of what will happen as regulators wade into this thicket. Mandating that all vehicles start and stop in a certain way, or have redundant mechanical backup systems, may be reassuring for consumers. It could also stifle innovation that would make electronic vehicle systems smarter and safer in the future. The University of Michigan’s Dr. Green, who points out the contrast between the regulation of drugs and cars, says there’s relatively little research to guide regulatory choices in this arena.
Further, vehicle standards alone can’t guarantee there won’t be another round of anxiety over “drive by wire” electronic vehicle technology. That’s because there are people involved. Your next car may not turn on, brake or shift anything like the cars you’ve owned before, especially if it’s a hybrid.
Airline pilots get retrained and certified every time they move from one type of plane to another so that they can safely operate the sophisticated electronic controls in modern aircraft. Motorists expect to jump in and out of cars with minimal instruction and a cursory skim of the owner’s manual. The pairing of high-tech machines and low-tech drivers could be troublesome for years to come.