Maryland Auto Safety News: NASA’s Attempt to Unravel Toyota’s Mysterious Sudden Acceleration Problem

It is understood that mechanical defects and product manufacturing errors can adversely affect the safe operation of motor vehicles by causing a potential failure mode in safety-related automotive components and systems. As personal injury lawyers here in Maryland, I and my staff know very well the possible consequences that a critical component failure can have at highway speeds or in densely-packed traffic conditions.

Whether an accident occurs on an expressway or a city street, chances are that someone may be injured or killed as a result. While some accidents are caused mainly be driver error or negligence, other car and trucking-related wrecks are a result of a broken part or component. When something fails in a motor vehicle’s steering or braking system, suspension or tires, the driver can be caught unaware and lose control of the motorcycle, car or tractor-trailer rig.

Problems with a car or truck’s throttle controls can also cause and accident, such as the well-known Audi 5000 many years ago. In cases such as these, victims typically complain of an uncontrolled or sudden acceleration condition in which the driver of the vehicle finds it either difficult or nearly impossible to stop the car. Last year, similar sudden acceleration complaints began to occur with certain Toyota models. The source of the trouble, if any, was next to impossible to figure out.

According to news reports, engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) may have discovered the cause of some Toyota vehicles’ propensity to accelerate despite the driver having his or her foot firmly on the brake pedal. News reports suggest that while the Japanese automaker has continuously denied that there was anything the matter with its engine control or other vehicle electronic systems, NASA engineers found a mechanical issue with some vehicles that could have caused the acceleration condition.

This may not be too surprising to those who recall that some Toyota acceleration problems have been caused by, of all things, poorly-designed floor mats. Based on news reports, NASA released its findings about a year ago essentially concluding that the electronic controls, the black boxes, themselves were not a trouble spot. However, buried in the NASA study was some evidence of another kind of problem that could affect a vehicle’s throttle and the driver’s ability to control it.

According to news reports, Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) dismissed what some investigator refer to as “tin whiskers” — tiny, nearly imperceptible wisps of metal wire formed, theoretically, when tin is electrified. These “wires” are thinner than a human hair, yet can conduct electricity within a throttle control unit.

Some experts suggest that errant electrical “signals” passed along by these tin whiskers can cause the electronics to send an acceleration signal to the throttle control system even when the driver has his or her foot off the accelerator and firmly on the brake. According to news article, this tin whisker theory could be the culprit behind numerous failures in the electronics used by automobile manufacturers and other industries.

From communications satellites to cardiac pacemakers, military missiles to nuclear power plants, the effect could be the source of what some are calling crippling defects in many types of machinery.

It is important to note that the NASA study did not specifically name tin whiskers as the cause of fatal sudden acceleration crashes affecting those Toyota vehicles; however, many safety advocates feel that just the confirmed existence of these tin whiskers makes further and more detailed investigation a priority — certainly before any causal link between this effect and sudden or unintended acceleration can be accepted or discarded.

Without a doubt, something this potentially dangerous, there is no reason not to get to the bottom of it. No single individual’s life is worth anything less than finding the cause and implementing a solution.

Toyota’s Sudden Acceleration Problem May Have Been Triggered By Tin Whiskers,, January 23, 2012

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