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Take Five: David Gilbert, an automotive technology professor up against Toyota's Goliath

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2010 - By his own account, the past three and a half weeks have been a "whirlwind affair" for David Gilbert, the automotive technology professor from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale who in mid-February found a potentially industry-changing glitch in the on-board computer of a Toyota vehicle.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles to date because of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA), a problem that has been linked to numerous accidents and several deaths nationwide. Gilbert, along with fellow SIUC automotive professor Omar Trinidad, tested the computer systems of several Toyota vehicles at the school's automotive campus in Carterville, Ill.

The pair found that when an artificially engineered "fault," or instance of SUA, was introduced to the computer, it would not send an error code or put the vehicle into failsafe mode, which would decrease power to the vehicle's engine and slow it down.

On Feb. 24, Gilbert presented his preliminary findings to a congressional subcommittee in Washington, D.C. His testimony was featured in the first of three hearings that week in which congressmen from both sides of the political spectrum blasted Toyota and its handling of the SUA problem.

On March 8, Toyota, with the help of independent research firm Exponent, Inc., fired back in a webcast that attempted to prove Gilbert's findings irrelevant; several Exponent representatives explained that Gilbert had not proven his "unrealistic" modification of the accelerator pedal circuit could occur naturally in the everyday operation of vehicles.

In a statement released by SIUC, Gilbert wrote in response: "Over the next several days, I will examine their expanded results and conclusions along with my own. I will visit Exponent next week to get a first-hand look at the information presented today and discuss their methods and procedures. I hope to complete my review of all the information within the next few weeks."

Gilbert has repeatedly said in interviews that he harbors no ill will toward the manufacturer; he recently purchased a new Toyota Tundra and his son also drives a Toyota. In addition to his 30 years of automotive experience, Gilbert has a master's in industrial arts education from Oklahoma State University, as well as a Ph.D in workforce education and development from his current employer, SIUC. In a recent interview, Gilbert talked about his experiences with cars, from tuning tractors on an Oklahoma farm to explaining the intricacies of electronic throttle control to U.S. congressmen. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Where did you grow up and when did you start working on cars?

Gilbert: Tonkawa, Oklahoma -- tornado alley. That's where I grew up. I grew up on a farm, so I worked on all my dad's farm equipment. And of course, along with farm equipment comes fixing it. When I was in high school my friends all worked on cars. We used to work on Camaros, race Camaros, paint Camaros and all that. There's an old abandoned airstrip out there, and we used to go race on that. I never did race much. I had a pickup truck, so a lot of times what I ended up doing was pulling them all home after they tore things up. But we used to work on cars, paint cars, mess around and (do) all kinds of stuff. My friends all worked on their hot rods and I worked on my antique.

There's a lot of older folks who spent their younger days working on cars. You're from that generation but you made the transition and you're helping people in this generation, too.

Gilbert: It's a whole new ball game if you want to modify anything today. It's essentially programming. Some automotive students, they buy after market computers for their cars, but typically that's not going to be everybody's cup of tea because it's really complicated once you start.

It's kind of sad because I enjoyed taking stuff apart when I was younger and working on stuff. But you're right -- that element where you can go out and tinker with your car and maybe improve it or take stuff apart and it was mostly mechanical and pretty simple, those days are pretty much gone. And I see that in the students that come in. They don't have as much hands-on experience as they used to have, unless they come from a farm background where they do a lot of their own repair.

Really today's cars run better than they ever have run before. They're cleaner, they're more fuel efficient (and) they have more power per pound. Part of that is improvement in oil and technology, but for the most part, today's cars really don't need the types of modifications that we used to have to do to get extra power out of them.

You know, the cars have advanced and our laws haven't really kept pace with that as far as the liability and so forth. And electronic throttle control is a good example of that.

What do you think your students' would say about you if they could remain anonymous?

Gilbert: They like the fact that I push them. And I do; I push their limits a little bit. I want them to try to solve things on their own. It's kind a of a research element, if you will, because cars are constantly changing and you've got to be able to adapt, accept the new ideas and stay current. I tell them in class, the cars you're working on today are not going to be the same cars you're going to be working on 10 years from now. And I can say that with good conscience because I've seen it. I've seen a lot of changes.

What was it like testifying in the Capitol? Were you nervous?

Gilbert: It was quite a bit larger class than I normally have. I was nervous to begin with, but it seemed like the longer I was there, the more comfortable I became, if you can be comfortable in that kind of a setting. I don't think you can. We went in through the back door and went through security. The press was just everywhere. I've never seen so many cameras in one spot. There were just cameras everywhere. Everybody had a camera. Now I know how the politicians feel every day. There's always somebody with a camera. I don't know how they get anything done.

John Shimkus (the GOP congressman from Edwardsville) helped me unwind a little bit after my testimony. He took me through the Capitol building and I watched him vote on some things. (U.S. Rep.) Jerry Costello was, I guess, out of town so Shimkus kind of took me under his wing. He was very interested and glad that I came.

There's a lot of marble and granite ... Those are some pretty majestic buildings. I'd been to D.C. probably almost 20 years ago. We did a few tours and went to some of the buildings, but nothing like what my rounds with Shimkus were like. It really helped relieve a lot of the tension to get out and walk around a bit.

You're from a farm family, you come out here you're in Carterville, and then you find this problem that could potentially affect a multibillion-dollar, global corporation. Was this a shock to you?

Gilbert: I knew what I was looking for. I didn't think I would be able to find that. Certainly in this case it was a surprise, and I wouldn't be surprised if there's going to be some real fundamental changes as far as the way we do cars to make them safer.

It looks like our legislators are going to look very seriously at having the brake pedal override, and it makes sense to do that. If we had that brake pedal override and we've got an electronic throttle, we could have resolved a lot of safety issues, not just SUA. That would also take care of a stuck accelerator pedal; it would also take care of a floor mat entrapment and some of the other things they're looking at as potential problems.

One thing that probably needs to be defined very well is SUA. It's quite different than an accelerator pedal that you press down and doesn't return. The difference is it could accelerate on its own, without the pedal being depressed. It's going to be something that a lot of people are going to be looking at, and I think that's good. If I didn't do anything else, maybe I brought public awareness to the electronics and some of the safety concerns we could have from those. And if I can do that, make the world a safer place, then that's a good thing.

Nick Johnson is a student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a reporter for the Daily Egyptian, the student paper.