Looking for the Ghosts in Toyota's Machines

On the first day of the congressional hearings on Toyota, one of the few witnesses called was Dave Gilbert, a  professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University. Gilbert claims that he has been able to get Toyotas to accelerate in an uncontrolled manner, that he can reproduce the error, and that it doesn't generate any fault codes in the car's diagnostic system.

In advance of his testimony, ABC News ran a story showing Gilbert reproducing his tests, accompanied by video of Toyotas accelerating out of control.

People took notice. Reproducible results from a professor sounds a lot more like solid evidence than loose floor mats and shims in acceleration pedals.

Gilbert introduced electrical faults into the cars' control systems that he said duplicated real world corrosion, moisture, and manufacturing defects. The shorts caused the Toyotas to accelerate without triggering any error codes in the main engine control unit -- which would have put the car into fail-safe limp home mode. The fact that no error codes were generated would also explain why Toyota has had a hard time putting its finger on the problem.

It sounds very scientific and reliable -- a professor with repeatable results in four different Toyota models, results he claims he cannot reproduce in General Motors products.

"This is a dangerous condition, it is not fail-safe," said Gilbert on ABC's World News Tonight.

Still, there was something in the back of my mind that made me a little bit skeptical. In 1992, Dateline NBC got caught rigging GM pickup trucks with model rocket engines when they couldn't get the supposedly defective gas tanks to explode and provide them with the dramatic fiery footage they needed.

Who is Dave Gilbert, and how did he come to be an "expert" witness before Congress? All due respect to Gilbert -- after all, he's got a PhD -- but he's not an automotive engineer. I have all the regard in the world for capable mechanics, troubleshooters, and technicians, but Southern Illinois University at Carbondale's automotive technology program is a glorified auto shop program that I'd expect at a vocational high school or a community college. Frankly, I'm a bit shocked that a four-year college offers a BS in automotive technology.

My skepticism increased when I found out who was hyping Prof. Gilbert's findings: Sean Kane, whom ABC described as a "safety advocate" from Safety Research & Strategies. Kane, who claims to have been the first to spot the trend of owner complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyotas, testified with Gilbert.

"This is clearly an electronic problem," Kane told ABC News before his testimony.

Who is Sean Kane?

Well, trial lawyers engaged in litigation with Toyota fund his "research." That fact came out in the hearings, as Kane sparred with Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), who represents a district with a Toyota facility. Kane admitted that he'd received money from five attorneys with cases pending against Toyota.

It also came out that Kane funded Gilbert's research.