Toyota Acceleration Problem Software Related?….Cars + Software Are Scary

03_10_Prius-prvToyota’s already recalled millions of its vehicles due to sticky accellerators, but that might not be going far enough. According Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, his 2010 Toyota Prius has an accelerator that ‘goes wild.’ The Woz has several Prius models, some of which were subject to the ‘Floor Entrapment Recall‘ and none of which were subject to the ‘Pedal’ recall. Wozniak says that a software is causing the issue and he’s having a hard time getting anyone to pay attention.

We’ve all experienced software glitches on our PCs, but things can get really scary when your car’s software goes haywire. I recently had to deal with a safety issue in my own car that was caused by a software glitch. All this talk makes me miss the days of working on my 1967 Mustang when the only thing between the gas pedal and the carburetor was a couple of rods and springs.

According to a CNET article, Wozniak’s 2010 Toyota Prius accelerates wildly when in cruise control.

“Toyota has this accelerator problem we’ve all heard about,” Wozniak said. “Well, I have many models of Prius that got recalled, but I have a new model that didn’t get recalled. This new model has an accelerator that goes wild but only under certain conditions of cruise control. And I can repeat it over and over and over again–safely. This is software. It’s not a bad accelerator pedal. It’s very scary, but luckily for me I can hit the brakes.”

If I had to guess (based on Woz’s description and what’s been described in reports like the ones in the video below), it sounds like Toyota’s cruise control software is out of whack. The below video sums up the extent of the death, crashes and general mayhem being caused by Toyota’s faulty vehicles.

My Car’s Software Glitch

I’d been very satisfied with my 2009 Mercedes E350 until November. It’s the best car I’ve ever owned and its packed with so many electronic systems that it requires two full-sized car batteries.

Just before the holidays my car started having what I consider a serious problem. When I shifted into reverse I was able to inch backwards slowly, but after a few seconds the car would lurch backwards out of control. It seriously felt like I’d down shifted and jumped on the accelerator. The problem repeated itself several times, but I didn’t get a chance to bring it in to the shop until after Christmas due to my trip overseas.

I brought my car in to the dealer for routine service and to have the transmission looked at. Thinking back to the days when I used to work on my old Mustang, I assumed the problem was mechanical. The Mercedes service rep told me they’d figure it all out and have my car back to me by the end of the day.

When I went to pick up my car I was expecting the technician to tell me that they’d worked on my transmission, but they hadn’t. The transmission fluids had checked out fine and diagnostics looked ok too. According to the dealer’s computers the transmission was A-OK. They had been able to replicate the problem and figured out that it wasn’t a mechanical failure at all. It was a software glitch.

As you can see on the scan of my service invoice below, the cause of my car jerking backwards was “OLD SOFTWARE 0104480410-001.” That’s right, the technician performed the equivalent of a driver update and my car was back in perfectly good working order.   Benz_transmissionIt’s very worrisome that I have to trust my family’s lives to software updates. I can deal with my PC not running at 100% because of software glitches, but this incident (coupled with Toyota’s woes) have me yearning for the days of when cars were simpler machines.

UPDATE:

Maybe Computer Gear in Cars Ain’t So Bad…

So just about as I was going to hit publish on this article I got a call from my wife. As she was driving down to Silicon Valley from our home in San Francisco a warning popped up on the dashboard. The warning was for low tire pressure. I told her to get off the highway immediately and have a gas station attendant take a look at the tires. At first, the tires all looked to be in good shape, but upon closer inspection they found a nail in the front right tire.

If it weren’t for the early warning from the car’s computer the tire may have run flat while she was driving at 70 miles per hour. Our car’s computer systems may have saved the day.

8 Comments

  1. Mike

    02/02/2010 at 5:47 pm

    I think that given the number of accidents avoided in the last few years by things like dynamic stability control, etc that we are far, far ahead.
    I predict within 10 to 15 years you will see the first emergency control systems which can actually robotically take control of a vehicle and safely bring it to a halt.
    For instance if a driver falls asleep or becomes incapacitated.
    The robotic driving systems have had huge pushes in development and the capability is slipping to smaller and smaller hardware requirements all the time, as well as improved AI (or whatever algorithmic method is used).
    I think fearing software in our vehicles in general is short sighted.
    I also think you’ll see automated emergency systems take over in the event of damage or failure to the vehicle – such as a high speed blow out.
    It has already been shown in airplanes that such systems can simply react much more quickly than humans and make corrections to keep an inherently destabilized vehicle stable much more readily than the average human pilot/driver.

    Reply

  2. GoodThings2Life

    02/02/2010 at 6:48 pm

    I agree, Mike… yes, software can fail, but no more and no less than any man-made creation– hardware or otherwise. If I can have the choice of one software calculation being slightly off if the planets are aligned just so versus countless ways a human can screw things up, I’ll take the calculation any day.

    Reply

  3. Chris Hickie

    02/02/2010 at 6:56 pm

    You gotta like that OnStar feature where if your car is stolen and the police are in pursuit, OnStar can remotely shut down the vehicle so it will come to a slow stop.

    As for the Toyota issue, you’d like to think there is more than 1 system monitoring acceleration parameters concurrently, and if they don’t both agree then one of those “idiot” lights should come on to let the driver know something’s up (and ideally the on-board computer be able to upload the data to the repair shop).

    Reply

  4. Ken

    02/02/2010 at 9:27 pm

    I work on software that goes in cars. The testing and rigors that the software and hardware go through, is extensive. If the same was done for PC software, we’d still be waiting for Windows 98.
    Then, when there is a problem, it is tracked to the specific line of code, or bit in a memory device (bit, as in one-eighth of a byte). Excruciating.
    A lot of people put a lot of hard work in on the software that goes into vehicle systems of cars (I’m not so sure about the info-tainment, though).
    Also, every device we make is tested, not a few of a hundred. Every single module is tested. Even the ones that are used for test in nonsalable vehicles.

    If you really knew what went into even a few parts that go into cars, you’d wonder how they can be so inexpensive.

    As for scary cars, did you see the video comparison of impact with a 1950 something or other compared to a brand new car. The drive in the old car would have been crushed, the new car driver would have been home for dinner.
    I know it is not software that made this difference, but, software is part of the modern car, that is safer, and partially safer because of the software.

    OK, that’s enough from me.

    Reply

  5. Xavier Lanier

    02/02/2010 at 11:42 pm

    Ken- Glad to hear about how much testing goes into our cars. I have seen those videos of the vintage cars colliding with new ones and it is indeed scary.
    Unfortunately, nothing’s perfect and bugs show up every now and then. Out of curiosity, who’s responsible for writing updates/maintaining software after cars roll of the dealers’ lots? Is it the auto manufacturer or the component maker?

    Reply

  6. Ken

    02/03/2010 at 6:31 am

    Xavier, both. The stuff I work on has software from both of us. Mostly, we write the boot and low level drivers, and the mfgr makes the application. The biggest thing is the calibration data. The guys who figure that stuff out are the top dogs, and that is tweaked to make things run better often.

    Things are looked at all the time, and enhancements are made by both sides. So, when you bring your car in for a tune up or something, you might get new better software updates.

    Reply

  7. SAM

    02/03/2010 at 12:46 pm

    This is ths future cars??

    “Good Morning Dave”
    Please start the car Hal

    “Where would you like to go?”
    BestBuy Computer store

    “Sorry I can not do that Dave…”

    LOL, I think

    Reply

  8. Mike

    02/03/2010 at 3:34 pm

    that would be cool.
    then my car could tell me what it dreamed about while it was deactivated and charging all night.
    I wonder if it would dream it was shackled to the garage wall…..

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *