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Woz Cites "Scary" Prius Acceleration Software Problem 749

Posted by Soulskill
from the bad-news-for-half-of-california dept.
theodp writes "Speaking at Discovery Forum 2010, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak went off topic and spoke about a 'very scary' problem with his 2010 Toyota Prius. 'I don't get upset and teed off at things in life, except computers that don't work right,' said Woz, who went on to explain he'd been trying to get through to Toyota and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for three months, but could not get anyone to explore an alleged software-related acceleration problem. 'I have a new model that didn't get recalled,' Steve said. 'This new model has an accelerator that goes wild but only under certain conditions of cruise control. And I can repeat it over and over and over again — safely.' Toyota said it investigates all complaints. 'We're in the business of investigating complaints, assessing problems and finding remedies,' said Toyota's John Hanson. 'After man-years of exhaustive testing we have not found any evidence of an electronic [software] problem that would have led to unwanted acceleration.'" We recently discussed other problems Toyota has had with electronic acceleration systems.
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Woz Cites "Scary" Prius Acceleration Software Problem

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  • by renger (1607815) * on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:22AM (#30995622)
    Seems true in nearly all industries: The people they hire to staff customer service are so unqualified that they cannot recognize when the caller actually IS qualified. They have no procedures in place to rapidly escalate calls from customers who actually know more than they do.

    Businesses lose the opportunity to obtain knowledgeable input, because their call centers are staffed by low labor-cost morons. The need to identify technically savvy callers and hand-off those calls to comparably competent staff members.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Publikwerks (885730)
      Yes, but as someone who worked in customer service, the problem is that the ratio of users who know what their talking about vs those who THINK they know what their talking about is approx. 1,000,000 to 1.
    • by eln (21727) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:33AM (#30995844) Homepage
      The problem is the really competent people almost never actually call customer service, because they know better. 99.9% of the "experts" that call customer service are people who think they know a whole lot, and can talk a good game, but don't actually know what they're talking about. Also, first level techs are basically script-reading drones who get paid garbage wages for an essentially unskilled job. You can't expect people like that to accurately determine if someone is an expert or not.

      The end result is you would end up with a lot of people who sound like they know what they're talking about being escalated and wasting the time of your skilled (and highly paid) engineers.
    • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:36AM (#30995902)

      This happened internally at my company.

      We had a problem and, unexpectedly, I figured out what it was instead of the appropriate department. They not only ignored the solution but tried every other possible solution before implementing the solution. And they are still (2 years later) pissy about it. The tools I used to solve the problem were disabled.

      I'm sure there is an entire department of Toyota people who would be very embarrassed that a person outside their department AND outside their company AND outside their business figured out the problem when they couldn't.

      But the same thing was true in both cases. Simple logic and noticing details. Woz debugged the problem. I debugged the problem. Most people just don't like to think logically and finely.

      I hope Toyota gets their head out of their posterior exit and listens to him. People have died over this issue (including a cop trained in emergency driving along with his wife and 2 kids).

      • by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:20PM (#30996710) Homepage

        I did the same thing at comcast before I left.

        I embarassed an entire divisional Office. they were still talking about how to approach the problem and I produced a working prototype to the CTO in their meeting. He berated the other office of 8 that could not even get started on a project that I solved on my own in 1 week.

        They still hate me to this day, and I've been gone for 4 years.

      • by tsstahl (812393) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:38PM (#30997032)

        Most people just don't like to think logically and finely.

        Most often the troubleshooter is simply too close to the problem. You are describing logical troubleshooting of how the system actually works, they are working from the perspective of how it is supposed to work. The great engineers know how to think like idiots. Great engineers also recognize competence no matter the source. :)

    • by Xest (935314) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:36AM (#30995922)

      Most customer service centres seem to be manned by people that would fail the Turing test.

      Last time I called Dell about a laptop that was completely dead, no power lights, no fans, they asked me what the error message on screen was and it took a few minutes to explain to them something as simple as the fact that I couldn't get an error message on screen because the laptop was dead.

      It was probably one of the most epic examples of human idiocy I have ever encountered. The worst part is that I understand these people are given little flow charts, or on screen wizards, so he must've managed to click past the first box that checked whether the system even turned on or not and then been incapable of handling the idea that my response didn't fit his next question.

      I don't even know why places like Dell even have customer services anymore really, they outsource because it's cheap, but the centres they outsource to are cheap because they're incompetent. They might as well drop the customer service lark altogether and save themselves even more, if I phoned Dell and got told by an automated message that customer service didn't exist anymore, it wouldn't have been any less helpful than the guy above that I did actually get through to.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by squizzar (1031726)
        I tried to get a dell monitor fixed under warranty. Helpfully it has the date of manufacture on the sticker next to the serial code. Unhelpfully the serial code was not recognized by Dell's systems. Cue angry (and fruitless) shouting that I couldn't really care less whether it's on their system, it's a Dell Monitor (says so in big letters on the front and back), and it's in warranty. Fortunately someone else at my work had had the same problem (power button jams) and fixed it before I had to go another
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Jim Hall (2985)

        It was probably one of the most epic examples of human idiocy I have ever encountered. The worst part is that I understand these people are given little flow charts, or on screen wizards, so he must've managed to click past the first box that checked whether the system even turned on or not and then been incapable of handling the idea that my response didn't fit his next question.

        Years ago, a falling tree branch took out the phone line to our house. I didn't have a cell phone at the time, so I walked down the block to the convenience store, and called the phone company.

        The person on the other end of the line was clearly reading from a script, and tried to ask a littany of questions about the quality of the sound over the line, ignoring my repeated attempts to say that the phone line was now lying - disconnected - in my back yard. Eventually figured out my phone line wasn't hooked up

      • by iamhassi (659463) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:21PM (#30996726) Journal
        "Last time I called Dell about a laptop that was completely dead, no power lights, no fans, they asked me what the error message on screen was and it took a few minutes to explain to them something as simple as the fact that I couldn't get an error message on screen because the laptop was dead."

        Next time you call support take a video, it might be the next "verizon math fail" with 30,000+ hits. [youtube.com] All that bad press over $71. [blogspot.com]

        I had a problem with a Whirlpool wash machine. It was a few years old and the warranty expired, but I took a video of the problem and posted it on Youtube. Within a week and less than 50 views I had an email from someone claiming to be whirlpool [youtube.com] offering to help resolve the situation with a 800 number and extension attached.

        I use to work tech support for a huge hosting provider (they're in the top 5). We'd get threats of lawsuits every day, but one time someone blogged about us and management had an all hands meeting, telling us to ignore lawsuits because those are easy to fight but if a customer threatens to blog about us to escalate to a manager immediately (usually we could only offer manager call backs... yes i know stupid).

        People forget how powerful the internet is yet we see the effects of millions of /. readers every day.
      • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:24PM (#30996784) Journal
        There is a more general problem: Why do companies employ people whose only job is to relay communication between their customers and the web? If the workflow is that rigid, just put it online. Let me connect to the web, answer the questions, and get the repair authorised without interacting with a human at all. No human is required because no judgement is being exercised. Then, with the money you save, hire twice as many humans for the second-tier support positions, where judgement is required.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by blair1q (305137)

          Then you get the flipside: the online troubleshooting site is the only thing you can find under "contact." No way to get past the lack of an answer in the database to find a phone number, email address, or submission form.

          Most online content providers do this. Google, Yahoo, ESPN, are a few I can think of off the top of my head. The closest you'll ever get is to luck into a "feedback" widget meant to collect impressions about their web design on a particular page. But those are likely linked to a databas

      • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:43PM (#30997108)

        People complain why Apples are more expensive, and this is just one reason. If I have a problem with an Apple product, I can take it to an Apple store. Sure I have to make a reservation and wait, but I get a live person. I could have called the support center and got a script, but the extra I paid for my Apple product entitles me to in-store support.

        For example, my iPhone just died one day. It never turned on. At first I thought it was not charged, but after 20 mins of charging, it still didn't respond. So I thought it could be the battery. The tech asks me what's wrong with the phone. I respond: "It's dead, Jim." He laughs and hooks it up to his diagnostic machine. It takes him a while to get it to power up but not after he removed parts.

        Amazingly the iPhone records a lot about its activities. I could see on his diagnostic screen all the times I synced in the last two weeks, how often I charged it and for how long, etc. His diagnosis is the phone wasn't coming out of sleep mode but it had plenty of power. There was a bug that they believed they fixed in the last major patch that should have fixed it, but maybe they didn't fix all the causes. Since I had 3 months left on my warranty, he gave me a new phone. I'm sure it was refurbished and not entirely new but it was pretty good service.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by StikyPad (445176)

          That's a bit of a straw man. It's generally Macs that are considered to be overpriced; The iPhone is about evenly priced with competitive models.

          As far as hardware issues, any idiot can replace a product, which is the "solution" for 99% of technical problems. Note that it's not actually a solution; it's just more economical than diagnosing the real problem.

          For software, Apple, being the author of their own OS, are a bit more knowledgeable about OS-X than a Dell representative might be about Windows. But

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by UnknowingFool (672806)

            My point is you generally get what you pay for. That's the same with most goods. If you want to buy cheap, you'll usually get a cheaper product and poorer service. You will pay less for a Ford than an Acura, but you'll get better service with an Acura.

            As for Macs being overpriced that's been debunked so many times. Macs are generally priced higher than other brands because they start at the middle of the market and go to the high end. They do not make low-cost models. Many times I've seen someone try

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by johncadengo (940343)

        Last time I called Dell about a laptop that was completely dead, no power lights, no fans, they asked me what the error message on screen was and it took a few minutes to explain to them something as simple as the fact that I couldn't get an error message on screen because the laptop was dead.

        It was probably one of the most epic examples of human idiocy I have ever encountered. The worst part is that I understand these people are given little flow charts, or on screen wizards, so he must've managed to click past the first box that checked whether the system even turned on or not and then been incapable of handling the idea that my response didn't fit his next question.

        I understand your pain, but it would be worthwhile to point out that the reason they ask questions the way they do is because the vast majority of their customers cannot distinguish between things like "Dead" and "Broken" and "Not working", etc.

        The general populace is incompetent, inarticulate and cannot properly explain their own problems. Hence, customer service reps follow these flow charts and whatnot in order to diagnose the problem and they do not trust the customer to properly communicate that.

        These

    • This is true - but even the way its set up currently, those more competent staff members end up gaining this elitist attitude.

      My room mate works in a Call center for Tech support for a national (possibly international?) ISP/TV/Phone provider*. He has only been there say 4 months and he's already among the best reps and people go to him for help. With some certification, he could land a teir 2 position. There was a case about a month ago where a customer called in, and said "Your server is down". My buddy we

  • Just like with Windows, you got a bug, report it to Microsoft, but until they get zillions of complaints, they won't put a dime in solving the bug.
    • Re:Like Microsoft (Score:4, Informative)

      by truthsearch (249536) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:30AM (#30995790) Homepage Journal

      "A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."

      • Re:Like Microsoft (Score:5, Interesting)

        by eln (21727) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:38AM (#30995960) Homepage
        That quote ignores the influence of the mass media. From all accounts, this problem with Toyota's accelerator is extremely rare. However, Toyota has been getting absolutely reamed in the press for weeks over it. There's no telling how many potential customers they've lost because of this, but the damage to their previously spotless reputation for quality could take decades to recover. When people talk about quality reliable automobiles, Toyota and Honda are almost always the first two names that come up. For a company like that to have an issue like this, and to have handled it like they did, is devastating.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by HateBreeder (656491)

          The thing is, since it's most likely a software problem.. they need to change their model to accommodate for hot-fixes. You shouldn't need to recall the car just to upgrade the firmware.

          Maybe this sort of publicity will push towards a more modern servicing model.

  • Disconnect..... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mark19960 (539856) <Mark AT freequest DOT net> on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:26AM (#30995702) Homepage Journal

    They exist between developers/engineers and end users.
    You have call center workers that log this stuff in and then someone else that reads thru it and decides what gets passed on.
    The only time it actually makes it up the chain is when it hits CNN because someone died, or in the case of someone famous that says something to the media.
    Only now will they hear of it and investigate it.
    The guy says he can reproduce it, and it's Woz.... if he say it's there I believe him.
    It's too bad that most bugs go unfixed because of the barriers put in place.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by fermion (181285)
      It is also the hubris of the developers. More than once I, and those that I know, have isolated issues with products only to be ignored by the developers. In one case, that of a website that used a third party for data, I was able to see that the URL was malformed. It was a very subtle error that most of the time would not manifest, and would unlikely appear in normal testing. I informed the developer of issue and the fix and was basically told I was an idiot.

      I don't blame the developer. I have been th

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by RAMMS+EIN (578166)

      You are so right.

      I've worked in organizations that developed software, from small shops where the programmers talked to the customers directly, and huge organizations with several layers in between.

      In the small shops, the programmers know what is wrong with the software they make. They know, because the users tell them. They phone in and say "X doesn't work", and the programmer just keeps asking questions until they can reproduce the problem. If they don't sort it out over the phone, one visits the other an

  • by kimvette (919543) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:26AM (#30995706) Homepage Journal

    This new model has an accelerator that goes wild but only under certain conditions of cruise control. And I can repeat it over and over and over again — safely.'

    Um, fact check. 134hp, that's engine + synergy drive. 0-60 is about eight weeks (well, 9.8 seconds but what's the difference?)). Under no circumstance whatsoever short of driving off a cliff will a stock Prius accelerate wildly. Sorry Woz! ;)

    (Uh, I'm kidding. Obviously.)

  • by GPLDAN (732269) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:32AM (#30995824)
    I have no great love for Wert and the Jalopniks, finding them to consistently side with the GOP on social issues and sidestep into political discourse way too much for a blog on cars.

    However, they have been frontrunning this story and trying to lead the charge to push it up to the MSM.

    Woz is Woz, he needs no introduction on /. If he calls bullshit on software design, it will get attention. Worse off, as Jalopnik shows on the bit on the Today show appearance by the Toyota CEO - they seem willing and ready to lie through their teeth about what was known, when it was known, and what their responses to the NTSB have been. Matt Lauer is sitting there with a copy of the NTSB report on his lap, saying they knew humidity was causing pedals to stick in 2007, and there is the Toyota CEO lying his ass off, saying only in October of 2009 was it brought to their attention. Toyota is recalling a shitload of Camrys and Corollas, and now Woz drops this bomb about Prius software design on them. It's time for the Hedge fund managers to make more money and short the hell out of Toyota.

    Note, in NTSB reports - many of these cars have had the brake pads TOTALLY burned through, indicating that once these cars took off on people, they COULD NOT stop. In the fatality cases, if the driver had forced the car into neutral (the linkage would have resisted, you would have needed to really muscle it) they could have saved themselves. Instead they rode the brake into an obstacle.

    This is PR nightmare time for Toyota. It will make the Ford-Firestone debacle look like simple times.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by zeet (70981)

      Yes, their coverage so far has suggested there's more to this problem than just the stated accelerator problems. Remember that this is a Japanese company, so there may be an attempt to push the problem off onto outside suppliers to avoid loss of face. There are several reports of problems that had nothing to do with a mechanically sticking pedal, and beside that the ECU software should disable the throttle-by-wire after the brake has been held down for several seconds. Other car manufacturers do that; if yo

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MaWeiTao (908546)

      I have no great love for Wert and the Jalopniks, finding them to consistently side with the GOP on social issues and sidestep into political discourse way too much for a blog on cars.

      If you think they have a tendency to side with the GOP you clearly haven't been ont he site long enough. And I can't recall them over getting into political discourse beyond criticizing Cash-for-Clunkers. In general, however, Gawker Media, which is the company Jalopnik is owned by has a libertarian bent trending towards libera

  • Post video (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ewg (158266) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:33AM (#30995846)
    Posting video of the problem, demonstrating its repeatability, should get the attention of the vendor and of regulators.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sounds like Woz's stint on "Dancing with the Stars."

  • A Toyota PR executive has gone on record, on camera, saying this isn't an Electronics issue. Woz stating uncategorically that not only is it tied to Cruise COntrol (an electronic component) but that it is reproduceable at will on the newest version that isn't covered by the planned recalls, underscores that it most certainly IS an electrical issue. Personally, if I owned ANY model of the vehicles currently targeted for recall, I would drive to my nearest dealer, demand in writing that they tell me I will N
  • by gwayne (306174) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:39AM (#30995982)

    I got a speeding ticket last year while driving my mother-in-law's new Toyota Sienna for the first time. I was following a vehicle through a work-zone with the cruise control set at 50-mph (so I thought). The vehicle in front of me changed lanes and the van accelerated rapidly to 65-mph...right past a cop. I tried to explain to him that the van did it, but he didn't care.

    I know now that the digital cruise control, in combination with the collision-avoidance "radar" in the Toyotas will regulate the vehicle speed, but what happens when the vehicle in front of you moves or accelerates is sometimes erratic behavior. Could this be related to what's happening? Is it user error?

  • by SendBot (29932) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:41AM (#30996020) Homepage Journal

    I can imagine that woz explained specifically what the problem is (and how to reproduce it), but the article doesn't mention any specifics. Now I have nothing empirical to form an opinion off of.

    Thanks a lot modern news media!

  • by Sfing_ter (99478) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @11:42AM (#30996040) Homepage Journal

    Do NOT Fuck with the WOZ!
    Just DON'T
    It is not prudent.

  • Dealership? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ArcherB (796902) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:06PM (#30996462) Journal

    Why doesn't he just take the car to the dealership? He could be making a bigger deal out of this than is necessary.

    It seems to be a bad habit people in high places have of trying to only deal with others in high places. His cruise control may have a problem. That doesn't mean he needs to call the CEO of Toyota directly to get the problem resolved. His dealer should be able to take care of it.

  • by harris s newman (714436) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:23PM (#30996770)
    I love my Toyota, and am sick of all the Toyota bashing. I didn't know that Slashdot was a tool of the propaganda industry.
  • by laing (303349) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @12:56PM (#30997356)
    See Woz's original post here [slashdot.org]. And the explanation here [slashdot.org]. It could be argued that Toyota should change their cruise control interface so it doesn't keep increasing the "set" speed beyond a few mph above the actual speed. As long as you are aware of how it works, it does not pose a danger.
  • by JakFrost (139885) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @01:00PM (#30997422)

    Re:Floor mat, really? (Score:5, Interesting) [slashdot.org]
    by SteveWoz (152247) writes: Alter Relationship on 2009-11-04 0:12 (#29973870)

    I have owned many Prius's. I currently drive a 2010 one. Let's say that I'm in some place where the speed 85 mph is legal. I can nudge my cruise control speed lever and my speed barely goes up, say from 80 to 81.I nudge at again and again, up to 83. Then I nudge it again and the car takes off, no speed limit. Nudging the cruise speed control lever down has no effect until I've done it about 10 times or more. By then my Prius is doing 97. It's scary because it's so wrong and so out of your normal control. I tested this over and over the night I observed it.

    It's scary because you don't think of things like putting the car in neutral when this happens. I am sure you can't turn the car off with the keyless power button, the only option on this model.

    Braking does disable this scary cruise control effect. It is a natural response, so the problem is mitigated a great deal.

    I have not seen this happen before so I think it's new to the 2010. I have the package which includes parallel parking assist and cruise control distance limiter.

    My old 1994 Chrysler New Yorker had a similar problem with cruise control but it wasn't as acute as was Steve describes. If I was going up any small hill on a highway and I hit the cruise control speed up button once, twice, three times the car would try to accelerate a little and then rev up like mad and try to speed up by almost +10 miles per hour until it was going much faster than I intended, making me hold the coast button for a while unit it slows down or by turning off cruise control all together with the Off button or by a light tap on the breaks.

    Oh and I'm not trying to play down the problem with Toyota's accelerator pedal recall or now this cruise control issue, there is a real issue there that needs to be addressed and it appears like there is some cover-up and a lack of accountability and openness about these problems from Toyota's reactions.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by BitZtream (692029)

      What you were experiencing was the engine down shifting to try and accelerate to the speed you had told it to go to. When in the higher gear it couldn't accelerate fast enough so you kept hitting the button, so it was set to a much higher speed than you actually wanted. Then it changed gears and had the additional power and accelerated quickly towards its target speed.

      Your problem was a user issue. The same problem still exists in cars today.

  • by tacokill (531275) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @01:20PM (#30997820)
    A wiki link to Therac-25 [wikipedia.org] seems appropriate.

    For those that don't know, the Therac-25 is one of the all-time worst human-machine interfaces ever built. I can't help but wonder, based on Woz's comments, if we have a similar situation with Toyota.

    Issues like these can be difficult to track down so it would not surprise me at all if that is what we are dealing with here. Multi-years of pseudo-random symptoms and no obvious "solutions" have worked thus far. Not to trivialize it but -- it's a gas pedal. In other words, it should be a simple mechanism for putting fuel into the engine. Of course, we all know modern cars are not so simple. That is precisely why I ask if we have a human-machine interface issue here. ie: you are pushing a lever for the gas but that lever is a "software" lever so who knows what is actually going on in the car's computer.
  • by PPH (736903) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @02:48PM (#30999266)
    Its a Prius. Toyota still hasn't solved the "wanted acceleration" problem yet.
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @03:11PM (#30999616) Homepage

    The New York Times reported that Toyota stopped selling their defective cars only after the NTSB "asked" them to do it.

    That's not exactly "voluntary". The way DOT and CPSC recalls work is that first they ask the manufacturer to do a "voluntary" recall. If the manufacturer says no, they issue a mandatory recall notice.

    About once a decade, some manufacturer is dumb enough to let things go that far. It means national TV coverage ("The National Transportation Safety Board today ordered the recall of all NNN model XXX cars.") It means that, instead of a obliquely worded letter from the manufacturer, every owner gets an official letter from the Government with words like "dangerous and defective product" in big black type. The manufacturer involved usually experiences a large, permanent drop in sales.

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