Buggy software often crashes, but some crashes are more serious than others. When Apple co-founder Steve "Woz" Wozniak noticed a reproducible problem with the cruise control on his Toyota Prius that caused the car to accelerate in unexpected ways, he was understandably concerned. His Prius, it seemed, was falling prey to a software bug -- a potentially dangerous one.
Woz had reason to be alarmed. Even now, Toyota is embroiled in the greatest crisis in its history, having recalled some 8.5 million vehicles on five continents to repair defects linked to cases where cars have accelerated out of control. Unexpected acceleration is now believed to have played a role in at least 815 collisions and as many as 34 deaths.
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Word of Wozniak's complaint spread far and wide, eventually reaching the ears of Toyota president Jim Lentz, who offered the legendary hacker his private phone number. But while Woz's story has a happy ending, the full chronicle of how Toyota has responded to the acceleration issue is a troubling one. Unfortunately, it represents a pattern that will seem all too familiar to software users everywhere.
Toyota's first reaction to reports of acceleration problems on its cars was to blame user error. That is, it ignored the issue. Only after the Los Angeles Times reported that the number of fatalities linked to acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles since 2001 was greater than the number of fatalities for any other automaker did Toyota acknowledge that it was investigating the matter.
Under federal law, automakers must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall. Congress has since demanded Toyota's records to determine how long the automaker knew about the acceleration problems before acting.
Toyota's next step was to suggest a hardware fix. The automaker's initial suggestion -- that gas pedals on its vehicles were sticking to ill-fitting floor mats -- convinced almost nobody. As pressure mounted, Toyota then assured customers that it had a permanent fix to the problem, one that involved inserting a metal reinforcing rod into the gas pedals of affected car models. The recalls commenced.
Meanwhile, complaints persisted that problems on some vehicles might involve more than simple mechanical failure. With prodding, a Toyota internal investigation revealed that there was indeed a problem with the electronic braking systems on some models. The company has since issued a firmware update to correct the braking software on the 2010 Prius.