Although we have yet to discover the whole story of the underlying causes of the unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles, I suspect that we may be seeing more of these dangerous types of incidents in the future.
A growing culprit will be the complex computer software and hardware systems that run the machines that we depend upon. And it won’t necessarily be due to negligent software design, but due to the many possibilities and environmental scenarios that can’t be tested for or anticipated.
The problem with electronic system errors may also be that it is extremely difficult to recognize the specific causes and therefore how to correct them. They often can’t be easily replicated. The conditions that came together to create the problem could be extremely rare or even unique. Without being seen firsthand, the possibility is dismissed too easily.
I suspect this is part of the reason why the first reports of unintended acceleration of Toyotas happened more than 10 years ago and we still don’t have all the answers. We are hearing of many different possibilities including floor mats, sticking accelerators, and now there are even hints of the more shadowy culprit, i.e. complex software systems whose operation can’t ever be completely understood.
After 10 years of reported problems, the death last year of off-duty highway patrol officer Mark Saylor and his family in a fiery crash in San Diego finally brought the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration into the public consciousness. How was it that a 20-year CHP patrolman couldn’t halt his 100 mph out-of-control Lexus? You can be sure that he tried all the possibilities in the minutes he had available to him and his passengers: unsticking the gas pedal, trying to turn off the engine, shifting the vehicle into neutral, even calling 911. It is reported that this was a case of an improper floor mat jamming under the pedal, but it is illuminating other issues in modern design and safety. Right now Toyota is taking their turn under the microscope; there will be others.
I don’t think you can create the perfect engineering design or software program. Even if we could it would no longer be that way after the first update to add new features. What needs to be done is to minimize the possibility of harm when something does go wrong, build redundancy and fail-safe mechanisms into the design.
One example of this that is being built into vehicles now is that if someone steps on the gas and the brake simultaneously, the system takes the safe route and assumes you want to stop. Fuel flow is cut to the engine. This is good contingency design.
On a vehicle with a push button start/stop, if there was runaway acceleration one of the first things you might try is to shut off the vehicle by pressing on the button, repeatedly pressing it harder and faster if it didn’t work the first time.
You wouldn’t think that you might have to hold the button for several seconds to shut it down — just like you sometimes have to do to reboot an unresponsive computer.