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The Punching Bag Hits Back: Prius Crash Was Driver Error, Toyota Says

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2005 Toyota Prius

2005 Toyota Prius

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Few automotive engineers believe in so-called "sudden acceleration". But until recently, there's been no way to determine what a driver what doing when he (or she) swears that he was pressing the brake pedal with all his strength even as the car accelerated.

Now, that's changed. Federal investigators say the latest highly publicized incident--in which a 2005 Toyota Prius in the New York City suburb of Harrison, NY, accelerated across a street and into a stone wall on March 9--appears to be the fault of the driver.

Dashboard - 2005 Toyota Prius 5dr HB (Natl)

Dashboard - 2005 Toyota Prius 5dr HB (Natl)

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Angular Front Exterior View - 2005 Toyota Prius 5dr HB (Natl)

Angular Front Exterior View - 2005 Toyota Prius 5dr HB (Natl)

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Consumers must be informed about black boxes

Consumers must be informed about black boxes

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2005 Toyota Prius

2005 Toyota Prius

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Black box: No brakes, full throttle

The Event Data Recorder, or "black box," in the Prius records at least several seconds of data from the car's electronic control systems. It was inspected by a team of six Toyota engineers and two officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The NHTSA said in a statement issued yesterday that the onboard computer systems in the Prius "indicated there was no application of the brakes, and the throttle was fully open."

In other words, the driver thought she was braking, but she wasn't--she was accelerating, with the pedal to the floor.

Noisy neurons

How can this happen? Richard Schmidt, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes, "The trouble, unbelievable as it may seem, is that [it] is very often caused by drivers who press the gas pedal when they intend to press the brake."

He attributes this behavior to "noisy neuromuscular processes," when a limb doesn't quite do what the brain is telling it to do. So a driver's foot may deviate slightly from its intended path.

Older drivers, too?

Drivers who panic when a car accelerates when they expected it to brake immediately press even harder on the "brake" pedal--leading to further acceleration. Seemingly, this could explain what happened to the 56-year-old housekeeper who was driving the Prius.

Age may play a factor in the behavior as well, with the bulk of Toyota sudden acceleration complaints involving drivers aged 60 to 80.

Toyota fights back

Toyota publicized the NHTSA statement on its Harrison investigation, as it did the results of an earlier investigation into a San Diego incident. There, 61-year-old James Sikes claimed his 2008 Toyota Prius had sped out of control on a freeway for more than 20 minutes.

Toyota [NYSE:TM] issued a press release on Monday that pointed to "strong indications that the driver's account of the event is inconsistent with the findings of the preliminary analysis."

Black boxes to the rescue?

It may be black-box data, in fact, that exonerates carmakers from at least some of the blame for cases of so-called sudden acceleration. Back in the days of the notorious 1986 Audi sudden acceleration case, no data was recorded.

Shaken drivers often got a sympathetic treatment in the media, which tended to paint car manufacturers as selling hazardous products that jeopardized passengers' lives.

Black boxes standard in 2013

The NHTSA has finalized its rules governing Event Data Recorders, and they will be fitted to 2013-model-year vehicles, starting in September 2012. At that time, there will also be a requirement that owners can access their black boxes in some way.

In the end, the data may be what brings light into the confusion and darkness of these strange incidents. Stay tuned for much more to come on this topic.

[The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required), Detroit News]

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Comments (50)
  1. Toyota did indicate the black box showed no breaking but what they do not tell you is if the occupant or the car caused it to accelerate out of control.. The black box can only tell you what happened not what caused it to happen. Was it the car that caused the out of control condition or was it the occupant? We really don't know do we.
     
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  2. Or the black box is recording errorneous data.
    I can write that 2+2=5 all day long to a computer's HDD or to RAM or print it on any printer made.
    That doesn't make it true.
    If the computer is where the fault lies, do you really trust the data that the computer wrote to the black box? Really?
    And then you let Toyota's engineers interpret the data for NHTSA? Really? How did you think that was gonna go? I wouldn't let a Toyota engineer ANYWHERE near a black box of an auto accident anymore than I would let a Delta employee fetch me the black box from a plane crash. Too much financial incentive to lie.
    Strong evidence? Far from conclusive...
     
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  3. was this proofread? The second sentence doesn't make any sense.
     
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  4. It's one thing for some code in a computer to get caught in some loop or something where it causes the car to accelerate, it's another for it to take data and write it to a log (the black box). And I don't see the harm in a Toyota engineer "interpreting" the data for NHTSA. I also don't think it necessarily needed to be interpreted, but was pretty clear what it said. As a programmer, if I'm writing something to a log, I'm going to make it as human-readable as possible, not make it something that I'd be required to decode if I ever needed to use it.
     
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  5. @M. Funkibut
    Seriously,
    GTFO.
     
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  6. i still can't believe these ppl will make phone calls as they are going "out of control" but don’t have enough sense to turn off the car. these drivers should have their driving privileges removed, and payback Toyota and lexus all the damages that they have caused for being total idiots
     
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  7. Yeah but if its a software issue like they say and the software is the same that controls the "black box", Isn't it possible that its not showing data due to the software malfunction?
     
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  8. The black box will only record the input commanded. If there is error in the software which commands the car to accelerate, then the black box will record it; the black box cannot distinguish where or not the command to accelerate is due to a 'glitch' or due to human input. As the data shows this appears to be a software error or due to EMI, then the black box data should be questioned as well, not taken as gospel.
     
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  9. Regarding the SanDiego Prius incident: The brakes were clearly fried. If Toyota has a system that slows the car if both the brakes & gas are applied at the same time, how did the driver manage to drive 90mph & apply the brakes at the same time? And don't tell me lightly dragging the brakes can cause that much damage - do you know how many people I see doing that everyday?
     
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  10. Can't take anything Toyota says seriously after their coverups over the past 2 yrs.
     
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  11. To Chip, the brakes were fried because they were rapidly and repeatedly apply with 250 times, causing the system to overheat. One firmed apply of brake and gas pedal would have stop the car.
    Source: http://eastcountymagazine.org/taxonomy/term/3424
     
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  12. here's another one that "could" fit thisa issue....population control anyone?? happens with our food and water supply, our medical supplies, so why not in an industry that helps to move the populace of the globe from one point to another?? does the average joe really think that the truth is concrete and infallible?? i don't think so......looks like ALL transportation vehicle manufacturers need to be taken to task on this.......
     
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  13. How Toyota Can Hurt the Media
    http://www.star-telegram.com/2010/03/19/2052984/how-toyota-can-hurt-the-media.html
    excerpt
    That story was still running on CBS through its Up to the Minute news broadcast with Michelle Geilan at 4 a.m. the next morning. Only by then there was a serious problem with what they were reporting. Now CBS had aerial video of the stopped Prius behind the police cruiser. And, although the cruiser had reportedly gotten in front of Sikes' car and physically stopped it, the video showed no evidence of that interaction whatsoever on the front bumper of the Prius. No damage, not even a scratch.
    Very good article about media toyota bashing.
     
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  14. I rented a prius and drove it over 4k miles.
    On three separate occasions -- I thought it wasn't going to stop.
    This 'sensation' of not stopping appears to be when your in battery mode and you hit the accelerator and it clicks over to the gas engine and then you have to stop suddenly ..... I will NEVER own a Toyota Prius -- its a dangerous car. Do not buy. I hear the batteries and the drive motor are very expensive to replace and have a short 8-10 year life... if safety doesn't concern you -- then maybe the 13k to replace those two items should.....
     
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  15. Every car company has problem with unattended accelleration. with is pedal miss applications. (driver error) 100% driver error. If You say toyota has an issue with unattended accelleration , think again , audi has a big issue back then .. but it come down to driver error. so as ford , gm and chysler.All my friends and family drive a toyota and never had that issue .. I only seen unattended accelleration on buick and ford.. and thats with older drivers. If u gonna blame Toyota .. gotta put all the auto maker in , they all have equal complaint of unattended accelleration. I drive now people that drives prius. never had issue like this.. If you gonna believe all this joke, mite as well believe (ballon boy story) . The fact is I know atleast over 1,000 people own a Toyota that never had any problem with their vehicles. their will always be haters who trying to find fault just because its the # 1 car company in the world. If u scared to drive then don't drive. Toyota will still be the one most reliable care company. get over it
     
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  16. Obviously, when a car speeds up, it is because the car's computer thinks you are pressing the accelerator. And the black box is going to log what the computer thinks is true, whether it is right or not.
    Basically, you have no evidence to support your conclusion. You could probably determine the cause positively if you had a magical reality dumper, which creates a perfect and accurate log of everything that is, but you don't.
     
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  17. Reply to "safe driver". What makes you think you can do any better than any of the 50+ people that have been killed in these cars. Have you driven a car with push button start, no key, you don't just turn it off. these cars have a safety which doesn't allow a kid to inadvertently push the button while dad is driving around a corner and turn the engine off which would cause loss of brakes and steering. KEY IN ALL THIS IS TO ONLY BUY VEHICLES WITH IGNITION KEYS AND INGNITION SWITCHES THAT CUT POWER FROM THE ENTIRE IGNITION SYSTEM WHEN YOU TURN THEM OFF. This involves some research because some vehicles with keys don't have ignition power disconnect(eg. most new gm vehicles). You can tell when you start a new vehicle if you just briefly turn the ignition to start and the starter stays engaged till the engine starts you don't have control. Most ford products still give you control.
     
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  18. Yea, that's right. It's all Toyota's fault. Nothing to do with aging, idiot drivers. We've seen this all before with Audi twenty + years ago, the same one-sided reporting, blood lusting Lawyers and poor drivers too stupid to tell the difference between the brake and gas pedals. This latest incident with this guy Sikes is a good example. He actually told the press that he was "afraid to put the car into neutral, because it would flip over". What a fricking dumbass! What ever happened to personal responsibilty?? Maybe Toyota should start providing 'Driver Chaperones' for all these morons who need help controlling their own cars.
     
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  19. This is Toyota BS, it's the same as when an airplane crashes, they blame the pilot. The blame with these cars should be put squarely on Toyota's shoulders, they are junk.
     
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  20. "the bulk of Toyota sudden acceleration complaints involving drivers aged 60 to 80" is the most telling statistic to me. i always assumed a number of the reported sudden accelerations was due to driver error but it would seem a bulk of them were since we all know old people cant drive! GET OFF THE ROAD GRANDMA!
     
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  21. Amazing how all these acceleration stories are in Toyotas. Yes, I see a real behavioral issue...older adults, driving ONLY Toyotas, have somehow confused the accelerator pedal with the brake. Amazing stuff.
     
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  22. By Bob: "I hear the batteries and the drive motor are very expensive to replace and have a short 8-10 year life..."
    You're crazy. Electric Motors often last beyond 1,000,000 miles before needing their bearings replaced. With new bearings ($80) they're good for another 1,000,000 miles.
    As for the batteries, the Prius onboard computer makes sure the batteries have an easy-breezy life and last beyond 10 years before being recycled.
     
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  23. naturely toyota gonna say that it was driver error, they always do.
     
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  24. ANYTHING built by humans WILL at one time or another go haywire(remember the lincoln doing the round about ALL BY ITSELF?)Ford's crown vic catching fire with rear hit,occasionally cooking the occupents pinto's,corvairs and the like,Space shuttles blowing up and disintegrating coming back to earth!!Murphy's Law at it's worst.Toyota also didn't have a lot of problems till they started building 'em in the U.S.A.I love MY USA But S#$* HAPPENS!!
     
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  25. It's so sad how many idiots are commenting here that know absolutely nothing about computer programming or how a black box works. People are acting like these things aren't tested. Yes, problems can occur, but if they do, then nothing would be recorded. If there is some sort of malfunction, then the black box would record nothing. Any programmer knows that 99.9% of the time, if there's a coding error, the code will not work...at all. There is absolutely no reason to think that the black box recorded things that didn't happen. If a black box recorded something, you can bet that it's accurate. If there's a problem, then the black box wouldn't have recorded anything.
    I find it pathetic that people immediately think this is toyota's fault w/o even considering that these people might just be full of crap. Every single wreck that happens could be blamed on this magical acceleration...that doesn't make it true. People lie to avoid taking the blame ALL THE TIME.
     
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  26. @Mr. Funkibit
    There is no singular master computer (or "the computer" as you stated) used in any automobile today. Modern vehicles typically use close to 10 major micro-controllers and as many as several 100 minor embedded micro-controllers.
    Each of these major devices has unique supply and protection circuitry and can operate independently of one another, while also providing redundancy in some cases as well as cross diagnosis of errors in others.
    So even if a throttle controller should fail (and there is no evidence to suggest that has occurred in any of these cases), there is still NO reason why the black box should also fail.
     
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  27. I just wanted to make a comment. A couple of years ago, I was driving, and another driver hit me (she had a stop sign). It was clearly an accident, because she got out of the car and said "I'm so sorry, I meant to press the brakes, but I kept hitting the accelerator." She had a stressful day, I understand. Our insurance companies took care of it, and that was that. I would LIKE to think that I would never make an error like that, but I am human.
     
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  28. To Peter, who do you think paid for all those roads you drive on kid.
    perhaps you would like to stay home for ever
     
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  29. Why does NASCAR.com feel it has to defend Toyota's position? That's like listening to Obama defend Obamacare! Maybe NASCAR itself should remember it's roots, Chevy, Ford and Chrysler! We can get enough of Toyota's problems on the nightly news, and they DO have problems!
     
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  30. It is about time auto makers stand up to some of the BS lawsuits. Everyone including dirt bag lawyers think the auto makers have deep pockets. People screw up and blame the car. But that is the society we have come to live in. Lets Blame someone else for our mistakes.
     
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  31. It is natural that people would blame Toyota for all the problems they have encountered while driving. This is just one of the effects of the automaker's massive and publicized recalls.
     
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  32. Anyone suggesting that 2 safety critical systems failed simulataneously, i.e braking and hybrid propulsion controls, should consider parking your vehicle and walking. I'll have to side with Toyota on this one.
     
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  33. Strange most of the sudden acceleration come from Toyota product and if it's not Toyota fault it's the driver. My question is why Toyota driver can't drive properly are they stupid?
    First if you buy a Toyota you must be.
     
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  34. In two different Norwegian Prius crash cases (sudden accelleration), the Toyota folks sings the same song here as in the U.S.: "Driver Error .., la-la-la".
     
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  35. Toyota makes the safest and best quality vehicles in the world. Remember the Audi situation regarding unintended acceleration...nothing was proven that it was the fault of the car. The government later apologized to Audi...many years later. How can a car be the best in the world and go to s--t. They call this pedal mis-application.
     
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  36. For any idiot not smart enoug to put a runaway car into Neutral and/or turn it off and ends up getting in an accident, well, that's nature weeding out the stupid.
     
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  37. Sure, it could be driver error, but it seems just as convenient for Toyota to blame the driver as it is for the driver to blame Toyota. The real proof lies in the condition of the brakes. Heavy braking under full acceleration will definitely show up on the pads and rotors. I wouldn't trust an EDR's account of what happened because it only records what the computer tells it. If the computer is telling the car to accelerate 100%, then that is what the EDR will log, whether the command to accelerate came from the pedal or a short or a coding anomaly. Have you EVER used computer software that NEVER had an update issued for it and worked 100% the first time? Toyota could be experiencing an issue where an extremely specific set of conditions have to exist in order for the problem to occur. For instance, there could be a sensor (even one that has nothing to do with the throttle control system) that malfunctions at a specific electrical system voltage and ambient temperature in the presence of humidity above a certain level that sends an erroneous serial data communication outside it's normal parameters and is misinterpreted by the computer. Truth is, nobody really knows, but the burden of proof is now on Toyota with all of the problems that they've had. Until they can PROVE rather than claim that they're not at fault, I would never spend my hard earned money on one.
     
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  38. To the guy that says, "Old people, get off the road", most of the accidents in my area are caused by speeding, drunks and lil mamas on their cell phones.
     
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  39. How many of these "accidents" were a result of texting, cellphone use, or a tired driver or distracted driver? If you spend any time at all driving down the highway, its amazing to watch everyone multitasking while driving. Scary too!
     
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  40. Note to Bob: What is seemed obvious to some can be ridiculous to others. ECMs in cars don't think. They use inputs from sensots in a routine that determines out to actuators. The sensors in this scenario are two on the throttle pedal and one on the throttle body. The actuator is the throttle control itself. The two sensors on the pedal send a voltage to the ECM that must be a constant total voltage. One works say 0-5 in one direction and the other works 5-0 (the other direction) The ECM will go into safe mode if the total voltage isn't right indicating a problem with the pedal sensor. The ECM uses the voltage to determine the throttle condition the driver is asking for. It drives the throttle accordingly. The sensor on the throttle body feeds information relating to actual throttle opening back to the ECM and that has to match the throttle opening to which the ECM is trying to control, or again it will go into safe mode.
    The so-called black box will have all the information from the sensors and actuators recorded. It won't be able to determine driver intention, but it can tell engineers, Toyota's or NHTSA's, how the car was functioning. No "magical reality dumper" required.
     
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  41. note to Marc: "there could be a sensor (even one that has nothing to do with the throttle control system) that malfunctions at a specific electrical system voltage and ambient temperature in the presence of humidity above a certain level that sends an erroneous serial data communication outside it's normal parameters and is misinterpreted by the computer." HUH? has nothing to do with the throttle control system? How the hell does it cause unintended acceleration if it has nothing to do with the throttle control system? You and Bob go to the same "verbalization via rectum" school of debating?
     
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  42. I am hearing now that high tension power lines may be interfering with the ECM. This may be the wild card in this whole deal. Radio Frequency Interference is real. It's why power lines create static on your radio.
    It's plausible, I saw it back in the 80s working with testing of pre-production Ford trucks and vans that had an idle speed control motor on the carburetor. The testing done at Ford's Bemidji Minnesota facility had incidences of high fast idle. After a lot of testing and investigation of potential problems we realized that the ECM (they were called EECIV by Ford) were picking up transmissions from and to the airport that was on the same property. RFI may turn out to be the culprit.
    ECMs are spec'd and tested for RFI. I'd be surprised if Toyota missed this, but it would explain why they aren't finding evidence that supports a driver's claim of sudden acceleration. I'm not taking the driver's side in all cases, but I think there may be a mix of real and imagined, and misdirected blame in all these incidents.
     
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  43. totally agreed with SAFE DRIVER comments. in 2004, was driving a 84 toyota celica/supra. one hot california day, went out for a DRIVE. at first stop light down shift it to D1/L, took it to about 4500 rpm, shift to D2/2 took it up to 4000 then D3/D to a complete stop on a red light crossroad. on green, normal driving with D4/OD, felt the car kick in and out between 2nd to 3rd gear. let go of gas pedal the car was rolling like if it was on cruised control. step on brakes, car barely slow down had to use ebrake to make a stop. put it in Neutral, engine idle rev up 3600 by it self. press on gas pedal and it went upto 4500, let go of gas pedal but engine still revin 4500. on green shift it back to D4/OD. tired screeming rubber burning car takes off. i knew something had to be stuck. press in and pulled back the gas pedal with my foot but only gets worst, by then i was doing 85mph. brakes was burning out and engine rev to redline win shiftin to Neutral. turn the key switch off and let car rolled a quater mile, turn key to on but not start so car would turn. the problem was the GAS CABLE got caught some how with the CRUISE CONTROL CABLE at the troutle unit of the engine. only happen that 1 time.
     
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  44. I have driven over 100,000 miles in my Prius and the batteries are just starting to show a little wear. I figure I won't have to replace the pack until around 600,000 miles (unless I short a cell or wreck the car) and at that point I'm hoping to trade it in on a new one.
    BigWave, thank you for countering the rest of Bob's misinformation.
     
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  45. I have only heard of one Norwegian crash. If anyone has a link to both it would be appreciated.
     
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  46. I wonder why no one has pointed out the fact that the black box recorded NO application of the brake. Even if the Black Box can't tell the difference between user error or computer error, it can tell if the brake was even pushed at all. And according to this report, it wasn't. What's the explanation behind that?
    Also I wanted to throw in there now that it's been a few months since the recalls were announced and there's pretty wide spread knowledge of the sudden acceleration defect of Toyotas, I'm sure there's lots of people looking to make a quick buck by driving their car into a wall and blaming Toyota. Lying to make someone or something look bad and make yourself a victim is pretty popular these days. I by no means am saying that that is what's happening, but it's something to think about. It happens to celebrities and athletes all the time, why not a big auto maker?
     
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  47. with all these older folks and young folks going 80 to 100 and crashing no skid marks, there is a pattern, and its not driver it car problem. sure toyota doesnt want there jap car tarnished, Toyota have made america believe these cars are better than mamerican and now look at what is happening. (Stay with ford,gm,)there american. all cars are good if u keep them under 50,000 miles, so why not just buy american like ford the oldest family owner car company and keep our jobs, my neighbor buys toyota every 2yrs, afraid to have problems. my ford has 300,000 and still going, not afraid my ford is going take off and kill me, or my family,guess thats what happens when you buy a toyota,if you believe that toyota is a better car I have some land that u need to buy, you will believe anything
     
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  48. When I was a young boy, wet behind the ears, I bought a toyota, my family worked fords daily on the farm hauling hay,cattle,logs,dirt,feed etc, put my toyota up to that work it didnt hold up, parts were 3times higher than ford. engine and transmission were shot before 100,000 miles. dads fords over400,000miles still going. I learned my lesson. my loyal toyota friends trade all the time. check the record ford is making better cars than toyota, check the record, ford customer satisfaction or quality record is over90% toyota and GM is below 45% and chrysler is below that. ford has a lot more luxuries than my friends toyotas do.
     
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  49. Nice post mate. I will stay with my trusty Honda.
     
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  50. Black boxes are good. These boxes will expose the bad drivers as losers!
     
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