Category Archives: Analysis

ET ALERT: Toyota ‘Unintended Acceleration’ Is Still Occurring


Despite claims that Toyota’s problems with unintended acceleration have been due to driver error, or cured via floor-mat adjustments, a recent case has been reported wherein neither of those factors were relevant. As reported by “Charles” in a message to Engineering Thinking:

The following events occurred on May 15, 2015 while driving from Charleston, SC to Nashville, TN (I-26, I-40) in my 2012 Toyota Highlander.  Normally interstate traffic is so congested it prevents use of cruise control; however, that morning I was able to turn it on and set it on 75 MPH.  As we were coming up on slower moving traffic, I applied the brakes to switch off the cruise control and it did not work – even after pumping the brake pedal.  I then used the off/on on button(switch) on end of cruise control lever to switch off cruise control – and that worked. If that switch had failed – or if I had panicked – then I would have had a “runaway” Toyota.  The car did not accelerate, but when you are standing on the brakes and the car is still “cruising” at 75 MPH it sure feels like it is accelerating.

Later on during the same trip I tried the cruise control again (several times actually) and each time applying the brakes would not switch off the cruise control.  Whatever is wrong with the cruise control system, on this Toyota, it is what we call in my line of work a “solid fault” – not intermittent.  I feel confident that my car will repeat the scenario every time it is tried…

…I am a semi-retired Electrical Engineer with over 40 years in the power industry.  For approximately 5 of those 40+ years I worked as a field engineer, testing and commissioning power control systems.  So I know a little something about how control systems (cruise or otherwise) are supposed to function.  I would like to add, that in my testing/commissioning experience, I only had one programmable relay that failed out-of-the-box, and it was not a software problem.  All the problems I encountered were related to wiring and/or wiring design … I strongly suspect the Toyota “problem” may also be related to wiring (wiring harness, assembly process, etc) not software.

…Please note, our Highlander has the factory floor mats which are held in place by two hooks.  My cruise control issue had (has) nothing to do with floor mats….


Charles’ expert qualifications and detailed report are compelling evidence that Toyota still has a serious issue that cannot be dismissed by blaming the driver or the floor mats. My thanks to Charles for sharing his experience, and for alerting Toyota owners to the fact that ‘unintended acceleration’ is still a very real possibility.

Prior posts on this issue can be found at the following links:

Toyota Unintended Acceleration: “No Electronics-Based Cause”: Not True & Misleading

Customers Claim “Fixed” Toyotas Are Still Accelerating

Toyota’s “Drive By Wire” Throttle System Suspected As Crash Cause

Stop Driving Recalled Toyotas

Toyota Unintended Acceleration Causing Deaths And Injuries

-Ed Walker


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Green Energy Storage: We Can’t Get There with Batteries (Why Systems Analysis is Essential for Making Good Decisions)

wind farmThe Catch-22 of Energy Storage” by John Morgan is quite an article. It exemplifies proper systems analysis, which requires one to stand back and look at the overall Big Picture — examine all of the important variables — in order to improve the odds of arriving at a proper solution.

In brief, the point of the article is that using batteries for energy storage actually results in negative energy savings, when one properly considers the energy required to build and maintain the batteries.

It is quite amazing that — because of the lack of a proper systems analysis — enormous sums have been spent on what strongly appears to be a Quixotic attempt at achieving “green energy savings” based primarily on wishful thinking about batteries.

This is not a criticism of those who like wind or solar power, because those who do have been taught to favor those approaches by a media which is largely incompetent with regard to scientific matters, and corrupt with regard to political policy. This deadly brew has resulted in a culture which embraces emotionally-laden “feel good” pseudoscience at the expense of hard-nosed but effective solutions, solutions that may actually help the environment, as well as ease the pain of our overburdened taxpayers.

Related post: “Look the the Big Picture

-Ed Walker


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Why Obamacare Is Like A Government Smartphone

Engineering Thinking principle: comparative analysis

cellphonesWhen you make a decision to purchase an auto or a cell phone or a home, you have lots of choices, because you have a lot of companies competing for your business. You can compare features and prices — do a comparative analysis — and arrive at a rational decision of which is best for you. Of course, what is best for you may not be best for others, so having many options helps to ensure that most people can select a choice that best satisfies their particular needs and preferences. Comparative analysis leads to constructive competition.

However, when the federal government decides to set up a program such as Social Security, Medicare, or Obamacare, we have only one choice. This leaves us at a competitive disadvantage, since we will not be able to do a real-world comparative analysis of any other choice. This lack of competition not only restricts our freedom to choose, it allows to remain in place inefficient and even counterproductive programs, funded by the taxpayer whether the taxpayer likes it or not.

This is a major reason why the federal government’s activities should be restricted to essential national services, such as the military and foreign affairs. When the government gets involved in social services, the historical record indicates that the government’s approach, although it may seem compassionate and somewhat effective, is actually very inferior compared to free market alternatives, primarily because government is inherently inefficient (see “It’s Just A Systems Thing“).

In addition, the proponents of big government social programs never admit that their programs are deficient, no matter how poorly they perform; they always find something or someone to blame. (The Soviet Union routinely blamed “bad weather” for its abysmal economic performance during its almost 70 years of existence.) If Obamacare survives, this is why those who predict it will self-destruct are likely wrong: no matter how ridiculously bad it may be, the proponents of big government will find some excuse to keep the Frankensteinian monster alive. Without a competing program in place to prove the proponents wrong, the blame game will go on and on, just as occurred in the Soviet Union.

govtsmartphoneGovernment no-choice social programs are the equivalent of having a government smartphone plan, where your “choice” is limited to a single smartphone, designed and built by the government, available with only certain features, and at a fixed non-negotiable price. And you have to buy one whether you want it or not, or you will be fined or imprisoned.

For these reasons it is best to leave social services to the states, or even better to private charities, churches, and civic organizations (see “What Would Happen If The Government Didn’t Take Care Of Us?“). When alternatives exist, eventually those programs that perform better become known for their success, allowing them to flourish, while those that perform poorly by comparison become known for their failure, allowing them to die out, and be replaced by the more successful programs. More importantly, alternatives provide each individual citizen with the freedom and comparative knowledge to choose whatever is best for them.

-Ed Walker


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Yes, Race Can Be Discussed Constructively and Civilly

colors1Note: I sometimes issue posts that are deliberately a bit provocative, hoping to stimulate thinking or to spark a debate. “Mr. President: I Am Not a Racist and Neither Is Anyone I Know” was one of those posts. For my small blog, the post had wide distribution (several hundred at last count), and I’m happy to say that, except for one flippant comment, all responses have been constructive. One notable response, sent by Mr. Keith Fong, was an exemplary example of civil debate. I am responding to Mr. Fong’s comments in this post, to help demonstrate how engineering thinking principles can be productively applied to controversial topics.

Dear Mr. Fong:

Thank you for your constructive and even-tempered comments in response to my post.

You said:

You argue that you, personally, have never met a racist. Really? How have you been searching for them? What is the analytical approach that you’ve taken? Perhaps you don’t see racism and haven’t seen racism simply because you’re not looking for it. “The Invisible Gorilla” is a fine book on the science of not seeing what you’re not looking for.

You are questioning my veracity or my self-knowledge, which is a fair question; I address those issues further down the page. Regarding improper observation, self-delusions, faulty memories, etc., I agree that learning about our limitations is essential for proper science. A listing of books on “bad science” that I think are worthwhile can be found here: DACI Resources.

Regarding some references on racial research, I suggest Race and Culture by Thomas Sowell, who makes a convincing case that culture is really the important factor.

You said:

Perhaps there is an issue of definition here. What is racism to you? Do you have to burn a cross in the yard of someone of another race to be a racist? If a waiter in a restaurant doesn’t offer the same level of service to a person of a particular race as to people of other races because the waiter “knows” people of that race aren’t good tippers, is that racism?

Good question. How about this for a definition:

“A racist (or sexist, or other “ist”) is someone who, when they interact with an individual and notice a certain group characteristic, will reflexively have a strong overriding emotional reaction. They are not really seeing the person, they are seeing an image in their head that has nothing to do with the person. Their subsequent interactions are guided by this mental fantasy, and not by objective evaluation of the individual.”

There is however a subtle but important difference when one is asked about a hypothetical person; someone that you are not interacting with, face-to-face. In such cases mental profiling occurs: one will review what is known about the person’s group’s characteristics, and assess the odds of interfacing productively with a random member of that group. This is not evil, it is simply a natural matter of playing the odds, based on a knowledge of the characteristics that are typical for the group. As a recent example of this point, please see “10 Black child geniuses you should know” by Amir Shaw, 28 June 2013, Bayview.


“If you only watched the evening news or depended on pop culture to paint a picture of young Blacks, you would probably think that the majority of Black youngsters were only ambitious about sports and music – or caught up in crime and debauchery.

However, the face of Black success isn’t limited to the fields that are occupied by Jay-Z, Beyonce and LeBron James. There are a multitude of young Blacks who are achieving at a high level in science, math, classical music, chess and other knowledge-based areas and preparing to change society.”

You said:

If you are going to make a sincere evaluation of whether racism still exists, you would have to use more than your limited experience. You would also have to establish and challenge your assumptions (the first of which is that your personal experience is meaningful and significant to whether or not racism exists).

Where would you search for evidence of racism? I think the criminal justice system is a fine place to start. There is plenty of data available that is broken out by race: The rates of drug use, the rates of incarceration for drug crimes, the rates of murder and the rates of death sentences.

Another place to look would be voting rights. Why are the laws to access to voting becoming more restrictive? Who are the people most affected? The justifications I’ve seen are to prevent fraud, but where is the evidence of fraud?

Interesting points. However, I did not claim to make an evaluation of whether or not racism still exists; in fact, I said the opposite (“Yes, there are some racists out there, around the fringes; we’ve all read about them.”). I suppose you may be taking issue with my characterization of racism being a much smaller issue than portrayed by the general media, and your points would be a way to help quantify the extent of racism. But the primary thrust of my post was about the logical fallacy of implying someone to be a racist because of their group membership.

However I can see that a lack of clarity on my part may have caused you a bit of confusion. I should have defined the related engineering thinking principle — fallacy of composition — where it is illogical to conclude that what is true of some parts of a population is true of all parts of the population.

You said:

Do you know that you are not racist? Have you evaluated yourself? Have you ever taken an “Implicit Association Test?” I have and, I have to say, I learned some things that contradicted my self image that I’m an exemplar of unbiased thought and action.

I agree that it’s always possible to learn more about oneself. However, based on the definition of “racist” provided above, I can state that I do not reflexively have strong overriding emotional reactions when meeting other people, based on their group characteristics. Furthermore, it is not scientifically appropriate for me to be expected to prove that I am not a racist, because I have made a testable and verifiable assertion. To invalidate my assertion would require knowledge of me as an individual. None of those I mentioned in the earlier post know me as an individual, therefore it is scientifically invalid for any of them to suggest that I am a racist. (For them to assume that I am without knowing me, because they may know some racists in my group, is a fallacy of composition.)

You said:

To roll this up, yours is an opinion post. You make an assertion without evidence and proceed to take personal offense. That is *not* engineering thinking. Where’s the data? Where’s the dispassionate analysis? Where’s the assumption that you’re wrong and you’ve shown that the data indicates you’re right?

Your comments about not providing supporting evidence are quite correct. From a practical standpoint, providing a thorough evidence- and/or analysis-based paper on any controversial topic would require much more time than available to me, so I have to shorthand my arguments with references and/or brief analysis. This is consistent with what I state in my Home page (par. 5), “…the purpose of this blog is not to convince you of a particular view. The purpose is to present some important principles and show how to use them to arrive at useful — even vital — conclusions. You are encouraged to question everything I say, and to do your own research and fact-checking to see if you agree or disagree. Such independent verification is itself an essential component of engineering thinking.”

You seem to be implying that I made a claim that there are no racists. But my key assertion was the one in the title: I am not a racist, and neither is anyone I know. This is a happy fact that you can disbelieve if you think I am a liar or deluded, but if you knew me personally I think you would believe the assertion’s sincerity and accuracy. Because I am not a racist I take offense at those who imply that I am, simply because I am a member of a group. For example, in responding to the President’s comments on the tragic Trayvon Martin case, Senator John McCain said, “Events like this highlight and emphasize that we have a long way to go.” We? Who is “we”? As for myself and for the folks that I know, we don’t have a long way to go; we’re already there, and have been for a long time. Perhaps the senator’s comment would have been more accurate if he had said, “There are still a few in this country, a small percentage of the populace, that have a long way to go.”

burglarSometimes it helps to illustrate a point by removing emotionally-laden words and replacing them with ones that are non-controversial. For example: There are burglars. However I am not a burglar, and I don’t know anyone who is. Therefore I would be offended if someone were to suggest that I was one, or that I had latent burgling tendencies unknown to myself, and that I should take sensitivity training to detect such innate tendencies. Ridiculous? Yes, but it’s equivalent to suggesting that someone is a racist simply because of group affiliation.

In my view, the ill-willed racist society that is strangely and illogically portrayed by much of the media appears to be a sad and troubling hallucination of their own invention, easily discounted by observation. Although some racists and other “ists” of all types surely exist (as do burglars), in the main it is a bright and tolerant America that I see and experience.  Just take a look at gatherings in offices and restaurants and malls and sporting events and parks and parties, and you will find folks of all races, ethnicities, religions, etc., mixing together productively and harmoniously. If you know of some place where this is not the case, perhaps we can invite President Obama, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Candy Crowley, Chris Mathews, and Senator McCain to visit those poor souls and provide some counseling.

Again, Mr. Fong, thank you for your comments. Since I’ve always thought it unfair for editors to have the last word, if you like, I will publish any follow-up comments you may provide without editorial intervention.

-Ed Walker


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Flying the Flaming Skies: Should You Trust the Boeing Dreamliner?

dreamlinerWhen a serious safety issue occurs, the normal engineering process tends to become quickly corrupted by management misdirection and stonewalling. Some prior examples of this are the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and Toyota’s more recent “unintended acceleration” fiasco. And now, as I recently discussed in the DACI Newsletter, we have fires on Boeing’s new Dreamliner aircraft (“Boeing’s Flaming Lithium Batteries: Was This A Risk Worth Taking?“).

In the Challenger case, although the root cause was immediately known, it took a long time for the NASA managers to admit what they knew. This is because, prior to launch, they had ignored the pleas of their engineers, who had been very concerned about the possibility that a large and critical o-ring seal might fail catastrophically due to unseasonably cold weather. This is indeed what happened, but that simple fact was deliberately buried under NASA’s confusing jargon and misdirecting blather, until physicist Richard Feynman cut through all the nonsense with a simple science demonstration. At a hearing on the disaster, he showed how the o-ring became too brittle to perform its function when exposed to a frigid temperature. (You can see him dipping the o-ring material into a glass of ice water here; start at 1:57.)

With regard to the recent Toyota unintended acceleration issue, Toyota likewise tried to downplay the problem, until forced to address it because of the growing number of fatal incidents. (Note 1)

boeing_batteryToday, Boeing is faced with a crisis: the lithium batteries used in their new Dreamliner aircraft have caught on fire during some initial flights, forcing those flights to be aborted, and the fleet to be subsequently grounded while the problem is investigated.


1. I have no proof of this, but it is my firm belief that there are engineers at Boeing who strongly recommended that lithium batteries not be used on the Dreamliner.

2. Using the batteries was not wise, since lithium batteries have a history of catching on fire. If the battery properties were clearly understood, there would not be incidents of lithium batteries bursting into flame in cell phones and laptops, and of being the cause of the tragic crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6 in December 2010.

3. On January 30 (after the flaming battery incidents), Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said, “We feel good about the battery technology and its fit for the airplane. We have just got to get to the root cause of these incidents and we will take a look at the data as it evolves, but there is nothing that we have learned that causes us to question it at this stage.” At the time of his statement, lithium batteries were known to have a history of catching on fire, which is at odds with Mr. McNerney’s purported optimism.

4. The steps to reassure the flying public that the Dreamliner battery system is safe should include:

a. Generation of a detailed analysis, vetted by an independent third party review, of the battery properties that affect the tendency of the batteries to catch on fire; e.g. chemistry, mechanical tolerances, operating temperature, charge/discharge rate, etc. The lithium batteries used by Boeing would be redesigned accordingly.

b. Confirmation of the analysis by a demonstration showing that the redesigned batteries, with proper construction and application, cannot catch on fire when subjected to the worst case combination of variables (e.g. high ambient temperature, high charge/discharge rates, shock/vibration, aging, etc.)

c. Even after the battery system has been redesigned, the possibility will remain that a rare and unintended event (e.g. extreme shock, or higher than normal discharge) could ignite the batteries. Therefore there should be a demonstration that a containment design will successfully prevent a fire in the battery system from breaching the containment and threatening the flight. (Such second-stage protection is routine for critical hazards, and is especially necessary because of the extreme volatility of lithium.)

A much simpler option, as I earlier recommended, would be to discontinue the use of the hazardous and unstable lithium batteries, and replace them with stable batteries such as nickel metal-hydride. (Following this logic, Airbus has recently pulled lithium batteries from its new A350 design.)

The bottom line: We cannot expect zero risk, but we should expect that proper engineering be applied to known hazards. For example, gasoline and other fuels are highly flammable and very hazardous, but because of proper engineering we all feel comfortable with the gas tanks that are strapped under the cars we drive, and with the large containers of fuel that accompany us on the planes we fly. We do not expect gas tanks to spontaneously ignite, ever. The same reasonable expectation should apply to batteries.

Note 1. Although Toyota has maintained that a faulty floor mat was the root cause, I believe that there was an additional serious problem in the electrical system, based on the report of a driver who experienced uncontrolled acceleration until he turned off his cruise control (see “Toyota Unintended Acceleration: “No Electronics-Based Cause”: Not True & Misleading.” Related posts are listed under the Protect Yourself tab, Health & Safety, here). My guess is that the cruise control design was inadequate from a safety standpoint, and that the problem was quietly remedied by Toyota.


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Guns: Rather Than Hysteria, Why Not Some Thoughtful Analysis?

human027The single-minded — I would say obsessive — focus on gun control by the major media, in response to the recent tragedy at Newtown, is not thoughtful analysis. The issue is one of mental health, which includes a variety of factors, with guns being only one of a wide variety of inanimate and normally useful tools that can be used for deranged purposes (e.g. knives, hammers, poisons, fire, explosives, tire irons, golf clubs, baseball bats, automobiles, hands, feet, etc.).

Based on data from similar tragic incidents, an important factor could well be the misuse of psychotropic drugs. One of the most thorough reviews of this topic I have seen can be found here: “The giant, gaping hole in Sandy Hook reporting” by David Kupelian.


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ET EXTRA: Investing (Gambling) in Drug-Replacing Natural Supplements

It’s often remarked that the stock market is the world’s biggest casino, but actually it’s worse than a casino. When you walk into a casino you can readily predict the odds of success. For example, a roulette wheel has 38 slots but only pays 35-to-1 for a bet on a given number, so over time you will lose, albeit slowly. When you invest in a stock, however, the odds are not that predictable, although billions of dollars are made by financial “advisers” who have convinced folks otherwise.

As pointed out in The Fortune Sellers, the way to improve your odds in the market is to ignore all those charts and stick to fundamentals: Is the company financially healthy? Does it have proven management? Does it serve a growing or in-favor market segment? Etc. Therefore, if you want to gamble in the stock market, throw away all that charting software and instead invest a lot of time doing fundamental research. Plus, invest in market areas in which you have some deeper knowledge.

Although the intent of this blog is not (and will never be) to offer specific investment advice, an example of a stock gamble that this conservative and science-minded engineer will make is ChromaDex, a small company that’s at the forefront of providing natural-food-based alternatives to standard drugs that all too often have horrible side effects. I’ve followed the natural foods/supplements industry for decades, and believe that the ChromaDex business model makes good sense.

(If you’re curious, please see “Near-Term Catalyst Could Drive ChromaDex Shares Higher.“)

p.s. I’m prepared to lose all of my “investment” on my educated gamble.

-Ed Walker


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