Tin Whiskers and Toyota: Collision Course?

New criticism of the reports by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA Engineering and Safety Center that led the US Transportation Secretary to publicly absolve Toyota of unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles is breathing new life in what the mainstream media had decided was a closed story.

When the US agencies released their reports in February, Sec. Ray LaHood stated that the findings by the NHTSA and NASA proved Toyota’s electronics were not guilty of causing unintended acceleration. “The verdict is in,” LaHood said. “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.”

Not so fast, said Safety Research & Strategies, which this week went to press with a report condemning the earlier findings for everything from flawed analysis to conflict of interests.

In the report, SRS claims the tin whiskers found in the vehicle samples provided to NASA did in fact reveal a failure mechanism that was ignored in the NHTSA report, yet that mechanism in accelerator pedal sensor circuits can cause resistive shorts that could lead to acceleration.

The report has become a hot topic among a group of printed circuit board reliability experts, who are pointing to the “extremely small sample size” of vehicles used by NASA to perform its investigations. “There are millions of Toyotas on the road today but NASA was able to look at only a handful,” wrote Bob Landman of HRL Laboratories, on the IPC TechNet Listserv. “Despite the small sample size, they found whiskers.  The Law of Errors tells you what about this fact?  That whiskers are a significant finding.”

Landman noted that in one case, NASA found whiskers in a pedal assembly after a woman who had an incident of sudden acceleration was provided the defective assembly by the dealer that fixed her car. “She learned of the [Department of Transportation] investigation and gave them the assembly, and it found its way to NASA where [researchers] found whiskers shorting the leads of the potentiometer.

Landman also said NASA demonstrated a braking problem under a test track sudden acceleration simulation.  “A NASA driver was strapped in, a NASA passenger had two switches, one to cause sudden acceleration at 45 mph and the other to safely turn off the the sudden acceleration so the vehicle could be brought to a stop.  What happened?  When sudden acceleration was initiated, the throttle was at 100% so there was no vacuum assist and the driver, using both feet on the brake pedal, could not stop the vehicle! It was found that it would take 600 pounds of brake force on the pedal to cause the brake to slow down the vehicle. Clearly, the software does not allow the brake to override the pedal. This is a defective design.”

“Something is rotten in this [NHTSA] report, it seems to me, and SRS found it,” Landman said.