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Why Toyota Can't Admit Computers Are to Blame for Its Acceleration Problems

Toyota is desperate to convince a congressional committee that dangerous bouts of uncontrolled acceleration in its cars are the result of mechanical problems, not computer glitches. That's because a faulty floor mat or a sticky gas pedal can be replaced. If the problem turns out to be electronic, Toyota is going to face a more difficult problem, both in the vehicle and in the minds of consumers.

A letter released yesterday by Committee on Energy and Commerce contains some damning details about the source of Toyota's problems. According to a 2004 study, Toyotas with electronic throttle controls had 400% more problems with unwanted acceleration compared to their old fashioned counterparts.

In fact Toyota's internal documents directly contradict the company's public claims about the source of the problem. The company found that "sticky" gas pedals were rarely the source of unwanted acceleration, and logs of customer complaints show that pedals and floor mats were the culprit in only 16% of the cases involving random acceleration.

Last December, Toyota commissioned an independent report by the California based consulting firm Exponent that determined electronics weren't to blame for the problem. But the congressional committee found the study was worthless. It used a tiny sample size of only six cars and didn't bother to test the computer systems or software algorithms involved in throttle control.

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo argues that consumers shouldn't be worried about problems with automobile software. He thinks cars full of computer code will be safer, since they can be patched and updated to fix bugs just like your PC. Human error, he argues, is still the prime cause of car accidents.

Manjoo is right, but he's missing the point. The culture of cars is not the same as the culture of computers. Consumers don't want to drive a vehicle that needs a monthly patch to fix software bugs. People want cars to feel safe and under their control.

Toyota understands this, which is why it's worked long and hard to make this issue a mechanical problem. The company recently bragged that it saved over $100 million in 2007 by negotiating a recall of "defective" floor mats rather than thoroughly investigating electronic problems. Now the ghost in the machine has resurfaced, and those savings are coming back to haunt them.