Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

it all can change in a moment

Almost never do I write a blog here that isn't on Saturdays, but something happened, which I feel compelled to write about as a warning to others.

Because our son and daughter-in-law had one of their vehicles break down, we said hey, borrow our Highlander while we are gone. Saturday they drove out to get it as well as ramps he would use for fixing their vehicle.

Our daughter-in-law, with our grandsons, left the farm with the Highlander. Less than a mile from the house, going down some S curves which drop maybe 50 feet, she felt the brakes suddenly were sluggish. She stepped on them harder and at the bottom of that hill, the vehicle took off and began to gain speed-- on its own. 

We assume the cruise control kicked in. She didn't turn it on. She stepped on the brake, which should have turned off any cruise control or at least stopped the vehicle. It did not. Then she shoved her other foot as hard as she could onto the emergency brake. It barely slowed the forward momentum. 

This is a two lane, country road. About 1/4 mile from where she was, missing a bridge abutment, she came to our small, community store with a wide gravel lot. Still pushing as hard as she could on both pedals, it barely slowed the vehicle to 40 mph when she went off the highway into the lot. She circled the vehicle, trying to get it to slow or hopefully stop. Finally she had turned it toward a neighboring woodpile. She ran into it. The Highlander was still revving its engine, and she turned off the key to finally have it stop. If she had missed that woodpile, she'd have gone into the nearby river with our two grandsons in the backseat...

You can imagine how we felt after we got the phone call to tell us what happened. Still today I feel teary as I imagine the other way this could have ended.

Although I had read, and do read about any possible recalls or problems with vehicles, I had read nothing about the Highlander doing this. After some research online, it turns out that it's known to happen to the year we have at between 80-100,000 miles. Our Highlander had 85,000 miles on it with never a clue previously that this could happen by anything it had done.

Today I feel shaky as I think how lucky we were and how other families have not been. We have all read about vehicles that did this, and it ended up with deaths. This could have been the same story had it happened elsewhere. 

Our daughter-in-law has always been beloved by us. I think the world of her, but now she is also my hero for keeping her head and managing to stop that vehicle that was doing all it could to kill her and our grandsons. 

When we researched it, we learned how it is happening to the years between 2004 and 2009, and how Toyota is doing all they can to avoid paying lawsuits where death was the result. Besides being furious, I keep thinking, how could manufacturers value money above lives? I know it happens all the time with water quality, air safety, and other manufacturing malfunctions but again I keep thinking-- how can it seem cheaper to settle some lawsuits than it is to fix something that has the potential to kill people. Wouldn't you think they would at least warn owners? Where is our news media in this? Since we bought this one new, we are the only owner it has had. We should have been told even if the incidents are rare. Frankly when it's your family, it's not rare!

Even though there were no injuries from this accident, it was no thanks to the vehicle. It was a combination of happening at the right place but mostly thanks to our daughter-in-law keeping her head. This has impacted us all with stress that doesn't go away. We were lucky. Not everyone is. We haven't yet talked to Toyota about the Highlander. We will do that tomorrow. For now we will have a friend tow it back to the farm. 

Here's the thing. They say that if you turn off the key while it's driving down the road, it disables the airbags, power brakes, and the power steering. You then have no control. The only thing you can do is put it in neutral-- if you can get it there.

So, we'll let our SUV set there while we consider what to do with it. Obviously my choice would be to shove it off a cliff, but we'll see what kind of excuses we get from Toyota tomorrow. I can imagine it will be denials of responsibility. Just a fluke. Not their fault. grrrrrr Anyway, I didn't wait to write this because my reason for it doesn't relate to what our family experienced.

If you are driving a Toyota, any model, do some online research to see what other drivers have experienced. In fact, if you are driving any of these new vehicles where computers make it soooooo much better, do some research on known problems for your model. It could save yours or your loved one's lives. 

Right now I need to take some deep breaths and try to not think about how different today could have been :(.


Tara Crowley said...

My God how scared she must have been. Excellent problem solving skills under extreme pressure. So glad she and the kids are fine. Hope to hear any follow ups -- this is crazy!

robin andrea said...

Wow! That is quite a scary and cautionary story. I am so glad to know your daughter-in-law was able to stop that vehicle. Yikes. I can't imagine how she was able to keep her wits about her during such a nightmare scenario. Keep us posted how this all turns out.

Rain Trueax said...

It is crazy and a time you hate being so far from family. Up until then I was glad to be here but as soon as this happened, I wished we were closer. We will definitely let you know if we come up with any reason why this happened that makes sense. Just a relief it ended as it did.

OldLady Of The Hills said...

What a horrific thing to have happen.....Thank God your DIL found a way to avoid complete disaster!
It seems to me there are more Car Recalls than I ever remember in the past. So much incompetence and so much emphasis on the all-mighty-dollar over safety! Greed rears it's ugly head, once again at the cost of lives and near disasters!

Tabor said...

You must have felt to helpless and so angry even though everything went well. I cannot believe that Toyota did not send a notice to you at 70,000 miles. But they probably had to replace the car as it was not fixable and thus money comes before your safety. I am hoping you get some satisfaction from Toyota to save thelives of others.

Ashleigh Burroughs said...

My heart is racing... your DIL is a genius... I'm in awe of her ability to keep her head.

As for Toyota - you go, girl! They almost lost your family...

Rain Trueax said...

Well after talking to Toyota, no surprise after reading the newspaper articles, they will do nothing. They are not customer friendly after you have given them the money. This kind of incident that could have been fatal is not their problem-- unless we sue probably. No surprise but I have to say it is disappointing. I'd like to think that corporations did try to do right. Maybe some do. Don't count on it if you bought a Toyota! So we can get AAA to go get the vehicle, take it to the dealer closest and then see if they will accept it's the fault of the mechanics and them. I won't hold my breath. Okay I will--- ommmmmm ;)

Rain Trueax said...

Here's the additional problem, besides not being there right now where we can look at the vehicle, if we have it repaired, at who knows what cost, would we feel good about selling it to someone else with no idea it could happen again. Very very frustrating when something like this exists and the ones who created it have no responsibility unless you take them to court-- and then it can take years of upset to resolve...

One thing for sure in this, I am never buying anything else from Toyota. I will check next time to be sure the corporation making any vehicle we buy seems responsive to the customers.

la peregrina said...

That is a scary story and I am glad to read your daughter-in-law and grandsons are fine.

What is it with car makers and their inability to take responsibility for problems with their cars?

Rain Trueax said...

What gets me is the stories I have read before that they decide a few lawsuits are cheaper than retooling. Don't they have children and grandchildren? How is it possible to think that way?

Where we are now is having to fill out a form where they then have 30 days to do something about. They will examine the vehicle but not sure if they expect us to have it towed into town at our expense and then back out? Then after that 30 days, they have 30 days to respond.

We are thinking next vehicle might be a Subaru. Anybody know how customer friendly they are? *s*

bev said...

Yikes! What an awful thing to have happen! Yes, your DIL is a hero for keeping her cool and finding a way to stop the vehicle. Just read the comments and see that Toyota isn't Being very responsible. I don't know which companies still have a good reputation for customer satisfaction. I do still hear good things about Volvo. I know a couple of people with older Subarus who think they are really good vehicles.

Rain Trueax said...

At least the highlander is at the farm. Our neighbor guy drove it home. He was prepared if it did it and it did. He forced it into neutral which stopped it. then he revved the engine and when he set it back to drive, it drove home without a problem. We are still unsure but it seems likely it's a computer problem. Where we have read it happens between 80-100,000 miles, something isn't right with them. So we shall see and maybe do nothing ourselves until we get back there in mid-December. We sure aren't giving Toyota more money to fix something that it looks like they have engineered to fail at a certain point even if at the time they didn't know it. They know it now.

Bob Bixler said...

Hi Rain,
I'm La Peregrina's husband and I'm a retired engineer and physicist as well as a 2005 Camry owner. Also I've repaired many computers over the years due to multiple mechanisms of failure. One of the more interesting things I've seen twice over 30 years in repairing computers is suspected failure due to spider webs becoming electrical transmitters on very humid days. I could never prove this but it was very suspect for multiple reasons. Anyway here's the link to another phenomena called "tin whiskers" in solid state control circuits. My guess is that this is what's going in many unintended acceleration cases. Also, be aware that many car manufacturers have been known to have the unintended acceleration problem.

Mr. La Peregrina


Rain Trueax said...

Thanks for that link. I will pass that onto my engineer husband. He's been going nuts trying to figure this out at such a long distance from it! Last night, middle of the night, he gave me another option he'd thought of. I am like-- I an already upset. Do NOT tell me this at 3 AM lol

sonia a. mascaro said...

Oh! Very scary!
I am glad to read your daughter-in-law and grandsons are well!
Just great that your DIL was very courageous and able to stop the vehicle!

Ranch Boss said...

TNX Bob. I also am a retired Eng. and all too familiar with tin whiskers and Nickel corrosion in interconnects. Our new Case International tractor has thin nickel plated contacts for the safety interlock system and it has failed 3 times in the first year in western Oregon's humid environment. LPS spray has helped that problem.
The Toyota problem does look like the vehicle speed control system is confused. It responds like the cruise control was set and will not drop out on pressing the brake. I am trying to decide if I let Toyota look at it or open the system myself. It looks like there are 4 modules and 8 interconnects that could be in the loop.
RB..Rain's partner in adventure

Bob Bixler said...

Ranch Boss,
Those are good and appropriate comments. My immediate reaction after reading your post was to caution you on opening or even inspecting your Highlander. I've been involved in legal proceedings (not in personal cases but in my business) and know that from this point forward who has possession of that vehicle can become quite important. You could void your entire case if you open up any control module, accelerator linkage, etc. as that would bias your case.

If you're interested in legally pursuing this then ideally a trusted neutral party will take possession of your vehicle as soon as possible. Then several qualified independent and unbiased engineers/mechanics or some such would inspect it.

Of course all this is the ideal scenario and in the real world this may be problematic. Realistically you have insufficient damages to pursue a legal case in my opinion particularly if you try to go it alone as opposed to suing as a group of Toyota owners. And in the past this particular problem seems to have been decided in favor of Toyota.

The main thing to understand upfront are the legal costs involved and that Toyota has a fleet of corporate attorneys just waiting for you. Sad but true.

If it was me I'd just play nice with the dealer and try to get them to fix your vehicle for free or minimal cost. If you hint that you don't really want to spread the word about your problem you might get somewhere with them.

On another note another possibility to the cause of your problem would be cosmic rays. Sounds bizarre to most people but they are know to cause spurious effects in some microcircuits. The insidious thing about them is that they can leave no lasting damage but simply cause an instantaneous voltage spike in random circuits. I know very little about them and the engineers at NASA would know a lot more as their stuff has to really be hardened in space.

Rain Trueax said...

I'll see what he says, Bob, but we aren't really interested in a lawsuit. More we are interested in getting the word out as to what happens. Since we are in Arizona currently, it won't be us doing anything with it soon.

Ranch Boss said...

Hi Bob: I like the cosmic ray idea, but... since the failures of the system both (twice..not statistically significant) happened within 300 feet of a specific place...it might be that that location has electromagnetic radiation that interferes with the speed control system.

Sounds bizarre ..actually,no, the previous occupant of that location..Dear Wilson, had a diathermy machine for his "condition" and it made EM noise that radiated for a mile!
That said, I think that Toyota has a problem with system instability and "they" will make enough noise to obfuscate any real understanding of the situation and it's implications.

Rain Trueax said...

My big goal in this, at the moment, is to make sure all understand, if this happens to you, shift the car into neutral. I don't think it's our automatic thought. It's bad that this can happen.

We have driven older vehicles for many many years and this is the first time this kind of thing ever happened.

New world with computers where when they fail on our desk, it's frustrating but not fatal. In our autos and airplanes, it can be.

Bob Bixler said...

Yep, I think you're right. At least if this happened twice in the same place it would seem that EM radiation played a role. It would be interesting to know if others have had problems there. Plus to do some mapping of EM frequencies and amplitudes on that road. Diathermy can produce shortwave, microwave and/or ultrasonic radiation as the desired treatment output mode but my guess is that the primary circuitry used to produce the final output radiation is the real culprit. The transformers, capacitors and magnetrons used consume significant wattage. Without proper shielding or with unusual wiring things can go wrong.

Bob Bixler said...

You're right. The main thing to know is to shift into neutral. I'm glad you want to educate people about this.

Ranch Boss said...

We have driven through that location many times in 36 years..It is a weird feeling area. We looked at buying a property just below it across the river and decided that "something" was wrong there. The Feng Shui with the hill and the river was really bad and the tree farms above it sprayed all the time. Bad news location.
I expect the corrosion problem is at the root of the failure and other things feed it.

Bob Bixler said...

Yep, corrosion would be the most likely and obvious problem. The difficulty with that is in previous unintended acceleration cases it was not found (as I recall??). Anyway I think you made the wise decision not to buy property in that area.

Ingineer66 said...

Oh my God that is so scary. Glad to hear that everyone is OK.