Monday, March 15, 2010

unintended acceleration hoax fuels unintended consequences

since the news broke about toyota's supposed unintended acceleration woes, it seems a day can't go by without another dolt plowing "uncontrollably" through traffic. even scam artists and comedy cameramen are vying for a piece of the action at toyota's expense.

and yours. and mine.


wait, what? i can hear you now: the information age, the usa's legal system, and the free market are designed to self-regulate and account for problems such as this. any company that builds and sells dangerous crap would just go out of business as soon as the people find out about it.  how could andi have a problem with that?

actually, i don't. the above is exactly right.

problem is, our elected friends in high places never let a crisis go to waste. propelled by an over-exuberant, clueless, and occasionally unscrupulous media, dc is using this "rampant safety concern" as an excuse to gives us yet more useless regulation.

the powers that be are mulling new laws that would require automakers to install "smart pedals" on new cars. in layman's terms, this means legislating that all cars shut off engine power when the brake pedal is pressed. but that's okay, i mean who would intentionally press the brake and the accelerator at the same time? well...



unintended consequence: lawmakers implement a new rule requiring "smart pedals," and no more left-foot braking in new cars. stuck in the snow or mud without a limited slip differential? screwed. feel like taking your next gen wrx to a rallycross? you'll probably have to spend thousands having the computer remapped just to get rid of what congress is putting in right now.

before legislating how our cars will be built and suffocating the free market, i posit we first apply occam's razor to sudden unintended acceleration. driver error certainly appears the most likely culprit. the only smart pedal that can fix this problem is the telepathic smart pedal.

last time we were at this juncture it was about electronic stability control. nobody, not even me, can argue that a good stability control system saves lives.. so the nhtsa made it mandatory for 2012. the list of unintended consequences from this one is a long one. death to purist cars like the viper. complacency from auto manufacturers that used to tune their suspensions for correct balance. now they just tune for how the computer will react after something goes wrong. and while even the best racing-inspired systems slightly decrease a car's cornering abilities, the worst systems decrease these abilities a lot.  mechanical grip or digital grip. think optical zoom vs. digital zoom. which would you rather have? 

circling back to toyota's recent unintended acceleration woes... i'll be the first to admit toyota does have some fault here. while they used to sell cars with soul, about ten years ago they decided to become the dell of automakers, and when they did that, they should have figured most of their customers couldn't tell a pedal from a footrest..

more important, toyota's recent techno gadgetry doesn't seem fully thought through. case in point: the starter button that replaced the key start. (what was wrong with the key, anyway?). one of the basic tenets of user interface design is consistency.  pushing button X should give you expected result Y every time. no matter if you're michael schumacher or joe dirt, if you've started and stopped your car hundreds of times and trained your brain to expect a one-second button push for the action, it was just plain stupid on toyota's part to require a three-second button-push to shut off the engine while moving.  when designing a car, you have to consider the scenario of unintended acceleration. maybe the driver hit the wrong pedal. or maybe the throttle pedal stuck under a floor mat. whatever. at this point, if the driver is smart he or she puts it in neutral.  if they're not, they'll panic, ride the brakes, dial 911, do who knows what, and most likely try to shut the car off. if they do try to shut the car off, they'll try to shut the car off the exact same way they've done it hundreds of times before. nobody in their right mind would think "wait, maybe if i hold the thing down for three seconds, that'll do it."  especially not a panicked dolt. 

the only fixes i see necessary from toyota on this issue are:
a) make on/off switches behave the same in every scenario, moving or stopped
b) floor mat entrapment, if that really was ever a problem
c) pedal sticking, if even that was ever a problem

that's where i think toyota's fault ends. i don't know if any toyota has unintended acceleration problems or not. i don't care. one of the reasons i prefer the manual transmission is i have full control of my automobile. that includes the wonderful clutch pedal that can fully disengage engine power from the transmission. as an avid automobile enthusiast, i drive a stickshift because it's more rewarding and fun than an automatic. why? control. so to all of you that drive automatics: you've made your risk management decision. no computer is ever perfect. combine throttle by wire, a computer-controlled transmission, and engine on/off buttons that take a software decision to invoke, and consider all the points of failure.

me? i'll continue happily driving my manual transmission car happily down the road.  it has drive by wire.  if the computer ever goes nuts and decides to "floor it", i'll just press the clutch. unless i'm already speeding by a cop doing triple digits. then maybe this would be a good excuse.

ps: to any lawmakers or automotive engineers out there: please remember to exclude cars with manual transmissions from any of that "smart pedal" crap.  thank you.

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