Dispatches from the Corporate State: A Study in Contrasts

It is interesting to study the contrast between the handling of the Toyota accelerator problems, which turned out to be pretty much all driver error, and the Chevy Volt fire issues.

In the case of the former, we had public hearings and government threats.  The government, without evidence at that point, demanded Toyota recall the vehicles and stop production.  Eventually, when the NHTSA determined that the panic and recall was in error and the issue was operator error and not with the car, the Obama Administration suppressed the results.

Now, Volts appear to have a fire problem with their batteries.  This time, the government is keeping things real quiet and, instead of exaggerating the safety issue, they are suppresing it

It now appears the fire hazard was first discovered back in June, when GM first heard about a fire in a Volt that occurred some three weeks after the vehicle had been crash tested.

Yet, almost five months went by before either GM or the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told dealers and customers about the potential risks and urged them to drain the battery pack as soon as possible after an accident.

Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the “fragility of Volt sales” up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA.

Demagoguing a non-problem in the first case, covering up a real problem in the second.  Guess which one has a union that supported Obama's election and which does not.  Guess which one Obama bought equity in with taxpayer money?

  • MNHawk

    Well, if there's one thing history has taught us, nothing will scare a leftist more than the free speech of others.

  • NormD

    Another name for an energy storage device is "bomb"

  • a_random_guy

    "Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the “fragility of Volt sales” up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA."

    Do you think she could explain just why should the "fragility of Volt sales" be a concern of the NHTSA?

  • http://www.dustbury.com/ CGHill

    Not a chance. This is the same bonehead who thought it was possible to save fuel by requiring a maximum of 85 mph on speedometers.

  • Mark

    Or asking Solyndra to delay the announcement of layoffs until after the 2010 election. This is the obvious problem about government money. It is spent for political objectives. A person once wrote that they would rather have the government making their health care decisions rather than a private insurance company. Not me. I prefer "greed" anyway. Greed is a straightforward measure. Governemtn, on the other hand, makes decisions seemingly arbitrarily, and it is sad that about 50% of the country believes in the government.

  • Eric H

    This is the same Joan Claybrook that once told GM to shut up about the dangers of airbags and start installing them, and then later claimed that GM suppressed the dangers of airbags to smaller occupants, and then shut up about that when someone put her previous comments (from Congressional testimony) into the WSJ? And now she's excusing the NHTSA? Didn't she used to work for / with Ralph Nader, who evidently did not (and perhaps does not) give a crap about the "fragility of sales".

  • DOuglas2

    In the second we have a few laboratory crash tests resulting in unexpected fires. The tests are supposed to replicate real world conditions, but so far no Volts that have crashed in real accidents have had similar.
    In the first we had families being killed in fiery road crashes, and harrowing tapes of the phones calls the panicked occupants made to 911 from their runaway cars.

    Doesn't that explain why grandstanding politicians don't find the second to be interesting fodder or their grandstanding?

  • Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer

    >>> A person once wrote that they would rather have the government making their health care decisions rather than a private insurance company. Not me. I prefer “greed” anyway.

    The chief difference is that it's possible, under private care, to go out and find someone with money who might be willing to help. May or may not happen, but it's possible.

    When the choice lies entirely in the hands of a government bureaucrat, your health and wellbeing may well depend on whether or not said functionary got laid the night before, and nothing else to be done about it.

  • Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer

    >>> Didn’t she used to work for / with Ralph Nader, who evidently did not (and perhaps does not) give a crap about the “fragility of sales”.

    LOL, Nader didn't even care about FACTS, the problems with the Corvair had already been fixed by the time he wrote about them. And he didn't bother to mention that in any way in his little anti-corporate screed.

  • Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer

    >>> Doesn’t that explain why grandstanding politicians don’t find the second to be interesting fodder or their grandstanding?

    Except that the incidents mentioned are totally unexplained by subsequent followup examinations beyond "stupid operator error" of some sort. Really, really stupid. There's never been any published demonstration of any mechanical failure of any kind whatsoever in the Toyota parts, to the best of my knowledge. And Toyota was castigated for NOT publishing regarding questions long before those well published incidents -- in other words, they were supposed to have self-acked the possible problems long before anything happened.

    Why is Toyota being held to a higher standard for public information than Government Motors?

  • D-man

    As a 2007 Toyota Camry owner and an electrical engineer by trade, I was extremely skeptical of the first reports about these stuck accelerator pedals. I was pretty sure that someone was stomping on the gas pedal instead of the brake, then saying he was stomping on the brake. Standard excuses.

    Until one day ... I was driving into work listening to my radio and a commercial came on that bugged me, so I hit the knob to turn off the radio. I waited for about 3 minutes for the commercials to pass, then hit the same knob to turn the radio back on. Nothing. No radio. I hit it repeatedly. It would not come back on. I thought for sure that I must be doing something wrong. I pulled into my work parking lot, left the engine running, just to see if I could figure out why the radio would not come back on. There was no obvious reason for it.

    I then turned the ignition off, then back on. I hit the radio's on/off button again, and it turned back on.

    Which then got me to thinking: if the software in this thing can get hung and refuse to accept the input to my radio, what things might it be capable of doing with the (computer-controlled) accelerator pedal?

    I've had one other instance in this car where the radio would not turn back on after being turned off, while driving it. In that case, the same thing: the radio was "reset" after the ignition was shut off then turned back on.

    In this day and age, there is virtually nothing in a car that is directly controlled by a switch or the like. Almost everything is computer controlled. Who's to say that the code in the dozens of microprocessors in there are all written in bug-free code?

  • Dwight

    Neil Young's car fire last year in his custom electric car was a reminder that problems with these batteries will cause serious damage. As you say, it all depends on whose holy ox is getting gored whether such danger gets over-publicized or not.

  • Peter

    Joan Claybrook, there is a name I had not heard in a long time. IIRC she led an anti motorcycle Jihad back in the '70s. Even to the point of spending God knows how much money on a rear wheel steering motorcycle.

  • Buck O'Fama

    As D-man says, all computer software has bugs which, unhappily, often manifest themselves at the most inconvenient times. But, this should be true of the Chevy Volt as well as the Prius, both cars basically being hybirds. Unintended acceleration IS a problem that needs to be publicized, but I would place fires in that same category. "Fragility of sales" is a problem for company PR spinners, not government agencies purportedly being paid to protect the public.

  • DensityDuck

    Not really any contrast...in both cases the government suppressed embarrassing information.

  • Chris

    Software, hardware, don't care. Give me your runaway car and I'll stop it. You may not have a transmission left and the engine may suffer some bent valves, and maybe some spun bearings but you will get out of that car alive. Bottom line, the Toyota scare was bogus( see Ford and Audi in 70s and 80s)but lawsuits make it all better!

  • epobirs
  • epobirs

    Joan Claybrook also wanted to put seatbelts on motorcycles. Utterly insane.

  • epobirs

    D-man, as an EE you should be well aware that some products are subject to far more stringent testing than others. The amount of testing that goes into drive by wire compared to the safety concerns of an unresponsive audio system are pretty massive. Worst case scenario, the audio system can be very annoying. The drive by wire system is a safety critical component and there are both industry standards and laws regarding the verification regimes for that type of equipment.

  • Mark

    @D-man I have a problem with my radio in my Ford Focus, shutting off intermittantly. Took awhile to figure out what it was, but it turns out it is the anti-theft device in the removable front panel. After awhile the contacts aren't tight and you get intermittant problems. Usually pulling the panel out and putting it back in solves the problem for me.

    The Fact that your radio gets glitchy and can be reset by turning it on and off does not have any bearing on the brakes.

  • Mark

    I had an experience like this when I taught my brother to drive. It was in a manual VW Beetle. All of a sudden the car started to accelerate, and I told him to hit the brakes, - he said he was - I was sitting next to him, but couldn't pull the car out of gear or slow it with the emergency brake - I finally convinced my brother to lift his feet off of all the pedals, and I slowed the car down, with the ER brake - finally, just feet before falling over a cliff.

    I knew and saw he had his foot on the gas, but for the life of him, he thought his foot was on the brake, and in a panic, just kept pressing harder rather than figuring, oops I must be on the gas instead.

    I can see how it happens that people mistakenly do this - happened in my own car.

  • Doug

    @epobirs: where I work, we live and die by extensive testing of the software. Yes, I know that some products are subjected to even more testing than we do, particularly when life depends on it. However, an attitude like yours ("how could it possibly go wrong after all the testing we did on it? I mean, WE devised the testing and WE did the testing!") is often responsible for just this sort of issue. It's called "hubris."

    @ Mark: If what you're implying were correct in the Toyota case, then yes, it WOULD point to Toyota being negligent for using a faulty connector in a safety system.

    I know a person who works in Europe, and ... (how to delicately put this?) ... "has access to" one of Europe's largest car component suppliers. This Camry issue had the European car manufacturers scared out of their pants, particularly when two similar incidents happened on cars over there (where fortunately no one was killed). In both instances, the data was captured by the cars' black boxes. I won't say any more than that, other than there really was something to it.

    Again, I'll repeat: I'm a skeptic at heart. In our litigious-crazy society, I think most claims are bogus BS, designed only to shake down large amounts of money by truly-evil trial lawyers. But in this instance, I do have some lingering doubt about SOME of the cases.

    Software (and even hardware) is not infallible, despite our best efforts. Just look at all of the effort to make impenetrable operating systems, and how quickly some high school kids (in some cases) can readily crack them. You're telling me that none of these large companies (Google, Microsoft, Apple) didn't expend a great deal of resources to ward off the Huns, concluding "no one can get past our defenses"? How about that drone that Iraq (apparently) safely landed last week? The only way that could have happened, I think, is if they managed to breech the DOD's security firewalls, take control of it, and land it. The DOD is still in denial about it, at least publicly.

    Let me propose a hypothesis, one that I thought up in my evil mind: what if the car's main control system thought that the car's transmission was in its PARK position when it really wasn't? What might that do when I attempted to drive the car under this "out of bounds" condition?

  • DensityDuck

    "what if the car’s main control system thought that the car’s transmission was in its PARK position when it really wasn’t?"

    What if a cloaked Klingon Bird Of Prey emitted a tachyon beam that resonated with the harmonics of our shields and disabled the containment system of our warp core?

    (What I just said is exactly as relevant to reality as what you said.)

  • Mark

    @Doug -
    As far as the insinuation above that a radio problem could be endemic of a brake failure, that is silly - no matter what you say about software

    But the real issue is people actually could use more car safety training. I am surprised the one victim was a cop - who should know how drive a vehicle.

    Lets count the mistakes.

    1: Didn't shift down
    2: Didn't turn off car
    3: Didn't hit the brakes hard to make the car come to a complete stop (all cars can come to a complete stop under full throttle if you hit the brakes firmly and hard, and don't ride them. That guy rode his brakes so they overheated and melted away.

    Why weren't any of these done? Don't know. I just know I was in a similar situation, and worked it out.

  • richard40

    If the Toyoda problem was real, somebody should have been able to reproduce it under controlled conditions. They were not. Driver reports do not count, since there is no way to verify the drivers account is accurate, unless there is some analog to the airplane cockpit recording system in automobiles. The driver reports may point to a POSSIBLE problem, leading to controlled tests to try and reproduce it, but it is not an ACTUAL problem until it is reproduced under controlled conditions. That is basic science and engineering. The abuse heaped on Toyada was patently unfair, asking them to fix a problem that nobody could reproduce under controlled conditions.

    If the problem is a SW bug, as some here have claimed, how come that bug has never been reproduced under controlled conditions. I do SW testing for a living, and one of my fundamentals is I never write up a deficiency unless I have a test that will consistently reproduce it. I have had rare occasions when I saw something that looked wrong, that I could not immediately reproduce, but normally I waited and observed, and eventually discovered a way to reproduce it. I suspect the NTSA finally withdrew the report when it became obvious that the condition could not be reproduced, and thus probably did not exist.

    As for the handling of Toyoda vs GM, the Obama cronyism is quite obvious.

  • epobirs

    Doug, you've completely ignored what I wrote. I never claimed the testing done was infallible. I merely brought up that it was ridiculous to use the bugginess of an audio system as an indicator of the reliability of the car's unconnected critical systems. It's like finding a fault in your computer's keyboard where the CAPS LOCK LED gets stuck as unlit and assuming this makes a severe fault in the CPU an equal probability.

    It's been quite a while. These European claims of your become more dubious with the passage of time. This was one of the hottest stories in the Western world for a time and yet nobody has leaked this hot data?

  • Smock Puppet, Frequent Fantasy Flyer

    >>> how quickly some high school kids (in some cases) can readily crack them. You’re telling me that none of these large companies (Google, Microsoft, Apple) didn’t expend a great deal of resources to ward off the Huns, concluding “no one can get past our defenses”?

    LOL, M$ couldn't protect itself from a rumpled paper bag thrown at their heads. There seems to be something about working for Microsoft, your brain just shuts down all effective function. Perhaps it's the air in Seattle. Might explain the predominance of lefties on the "Left Coast".

    Apple is also vastly overrated, since they depend on the fact that everything they do is proprietary to stop threats.

    The general problem is the notion of "security through obscurity" rather than open-source security.

    I believe it's simple enough to describe, there's a Dilbert that did it well -- Dilbert announces that he's produced a great child-protection software. Dogbert asks him a simple question: "Do you really think you're smarter than 10,000 horny teenaged boys looking for porn?"

    If you open it up, then there is a tendency for one or more of those finding bugs will report the find to you, just for the "Pat-pat-pat... GOOD boy! YES!" recognition.

    Throw enough people towards finding an error, your chances of finding one goes up radically. Hell, if M$ or one of the others was actually serious about finding bugs before release, they'd put it out as a beta with a challenge to find bugs with a good reward -- $10k or something -- for the first one who finds a bug which can compromise the system. They might pay out a million dollars, but it would produce a more robust product and be well worth it.

    So, in short, the answer is, "they really don't give a rat's ass."

    >>> How about that drone that Iraq (apparently) safely landed last week? The only way that could have happened, I think, is if they managed to breech the DOD’s security firewalls, take control of it, and land it. The DOD is still in denial about it, at least publicly.

    LOL, its been known for a while now that the DOD's security on these things was atrocious.

    This knowledge has been public for something like two years:
    http://theaviationist.com/2009/12/18/even-uavs-face-information-security-problems/

    And here, a more recent video commentary about it:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/kocher-says-drones-have-history-of-security-problems/2011/10/14/gIQAfSxBlL_video.html

    Sometimes, there's a brilliant person at the heart of something in the DOD -- John Boyd was a prime example of that, along with his Fighter Mafia.

    But, as with Boyd, that person must be shut down and limited as much as possible by The Powers That Be, who cannot compete with a genius on a fair field, and they know it.

    So much of the rest of the products that the Military outputs is sheer crap.

  • marco73

    @Mark - teaching someone to drive can be nerve racking. I've had to teach 3 new drivers, and I have the gray hear to prove it.
    When the Toyota sudden acceleration cases were all making the news, the drivers were all seniors.
    Other than the tragic Highway Patrolman's family accident, and that was caused by incorrect carpets in the car, I did not see one case in the major press where a a non-senior experienced a case of sudden acceleration.
    If there really was any problem with the car, why weren't teenagers, 20's, 30's, and 40's drivers also crashing Toyotas? All the stories were "78 year old Millie drove through the front of a store! Must be the car!"
    Shoot, here in Florida, it is almost a daily occurence that an elderly driver will plow right through the front of a business, stopping only when the car hits some large barrier. Injuries and major property damage are so common, that it doesn't even make the local news unless someone dies. These stories are so common that they no longer have legs.
    The Volt story has legs because of the perceived coverup. If the crash test results had just been publicized, along with the fire, it would have been a non-story: we abused the heck out of a car in testing to see what would happen, and something did happen. Yawn, stop the presses.
    I think the Volt fails on strictly a value proposition: there is just no way that buying this car will ever pay you back, over purchasing a similar gasoline only car for tens of thousands less. But that story is boring; its much sexier to talk about the fires.

  • Goober

    As far as I'm aware, no average, everyday car manufactured currently has an engine so powerful as to overcome the brakes if you stomp them good and hard. Even my 400 horsepower massively torquey diesel pickup won't go far with the brakes on the floor.

    Also as far as I know, modern cars won't shift into "park" while they are moving to avoid transmission damage, but moving the shifter to park at any time (or neutral, for that matter) will disengage the engine from the drive wheels with a mechanical link (ie, not drive by wire and so infalliable in case of software failure). YOu won't stop, but you'll start to coast and definietly stop accelerating. A quick application of the brakes, and voila! Stoppage.

    And finally, there is always the old standby option if your engine runs away with you, which is to turn off the key. Again, with the exception of old-school diesel engines, the stories of people who's car continued to run away with them despite the key being turned off are bogus - this is a solid electrical link. There is no software involved. Think "light switch". I don't care how much software is there telling the engine to shut off - if you literally disconnect the electrical power from a gasoline engine (and even new diesel engines with electrinic injection) they will shut off. period.

    The only "runaway" stories that I could give any credence to are the ones that happened in seconds - ie, the car ran away and I ran into something a second later. The ones where the guy was running down the freeway for minutes on end in a "runaway" car are cases of either terminal stupidity or attention-getting.

  • http://n/a BikerDad

    Not really much room for a conspiracy theory here trying to cover for Gubmint Motors, although I would venture there's some bias for the "green" Volt.

    The real reasons? How many people have Volts vs how many have Toyotas?

    New technology (which always has teething problems) vs the perceived legendary quality and reliability of Toyota?

    In short, dog bites man vs man bites crocodile....

    btw, the Volt sucks, and Toyotas are as exciting as poi.

  • markm

    "You’re telling me that none of these large companies (Google, Microsoft, Apple) didn’t expend a great deal of resources to ward off the Huns, concluding “no one can get past our defenses”?"

    That is not Microsoft's problem, it's more like, "How do we ward off the Greeks while we keep hauling these nice wooden horses they give us inside?" That is, Microsoft has multiplied its security problems immensely by allowing software to be embedded in so many types of data, and often executing it automatically without even checking whether or not the user knew he had downloaded software.