While Winchester Police Chief Dennis Young has many concerns, his mind cannot be far from another pressing investigation.
Those questions surround an issue called “sudden unintended acceleration’ that have plagued Kia, Toyota and Hyundai vehicles for more than a decade.
In Winchester on New Years’ Eve, three people were killed in a terrible accident involving a 2008 Kia which slammed into the back of a minivan. Both the driver of the Kia, who told first responders that the car had ‘run away from her,’ and twin 7 year old boys in the minivan died.
But that was not the only fatal accident involving an apparently unstoppable car that day.
In Ontario, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, a Toyota Yaris slammed into another vehicle, killing five people, including a 7-year old boy who was a passenger in the Yaris. The driver of the Yaris is reportedly cooperating with investigators and indicated the vehicle’s brakes were not responding, and the accelerator seemed stuck down.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has agreed to look into the California accident. Winchester has also requested the NHTSA send a team to look at the wreckage in the police impound lot here.
Earlier this week, Winchester detectives heard back from the federal government and sent in a requested copy of the accident report for their review. Winchester authorities are still hoping a forensic team from the government investigates the wreckage.
The issue of unintended sudden acceleration dates back to the 1990’s and has been an on-and-off issue for a number of carmakers, some of whom have issued recalls, once a reason for the malfunction is discovered.
Oftentimes, the cause is listed as operator error, like hitting the gas instead of the brakes, or an issue with floor mats moving and the accelerator getting stuck under them. But other sources of sudden unexpected acceleration could possibly be traced to lines of faulty computer code within a vehicle’s operating systems.
Others point to low battery power which can cause the computers inside the vehicle to switch into different modes that can result in terrifying and sometimes deadly consequences for drivers.
Newer model vehicles are essentially computers on wheels, and as Patrician Herdman, an internationally known software test consultant, writes in her book, “When Cars Decide to Kill,” it is nearly impossible to prove an accident was the result of a software glitch, not human error.
There are several incidents reported by drivers where a car’s sudden acceleration or locked brakes ‘cleared’ itself once the car was stopped and turned on again. Akin to rebooting a computer.
In 2009, Toyota recalled 5.2 million vehicles and the next year 2.3 million for accelerator pedal defects. In 2014, Honda recalled 175,000 hybrids for software failure.
An article in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, as early as 2009, noted that a F-22 Raptor jet fighter plane had 1.7 million lines of software operating its systems while a premium car had 100 million. And that number has nearly doubled in the past seven years.
With additional safety and convenience options, like automatic sensor braking, the issues become even more complex.
Currently, there are no ‘software safety’ laws for carmakers, but, considering how many electronic devices have become standard in new cars, it may become necessary to legislate some.