Fixated on Floor Mats

Last month, NHTSA kicked a two-year-old investigation into unintended acceleration in Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan vehicles up to an Engineering Analysis. The suspected defect – floor mats that can entrap the accelerator pedal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Analysis:

“A heel blocker in the floor pan provides a platform that may lift an unsecured mat into contact with the pedal. Ford introduced new pedals as a running change early in model year (MY) 2010 vehicles. Analysis of complaints received by ODI and Ford show elevated rates of pedal entrapment incidents in MY 2008 through early 2010 production vehicles. Incidents typically occur following hard pedal applications to pass slower traffic or when merging into faster traffic. Drivers allege continued high engine power after releasing the accelerator pedal and difficulty braking, including reports that the incident was controlled by shifting to neutral or turning the engine off. Drivers and service technicians reference observing evidence of mat interference or note unsecured Ford or aftermarket all weather floor mats in post-incident inspections.”

This action was followed by a high-profile $17.4 million civil penalty that the agency levied against Toyota for failing to launch a timely recall for floor mat interference involving Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles. This was a NHTSA-influenced recall of mysterious origins since the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire complaints didn’t seem to support a floor mat interference defect trend (see A Defect Remedy Delayed) – although the Lexus RX has certainly been plagued with all manner of sudden acceleration complaints.

These two events sent us digging through the recall and investigation archives to get a better handle on the greater context. There seems to have been an awful lot of floor mat-related brouhahas in the last few years. It seemed odd that floor mats – which exist solely to provide a barrier between muddy shoes and the carpeted floor pan – should suddenly be so troublesome. In the old days, rubber floor mats were rarely secured with retention clips, as they are now. In one of its responses to the 2010 Ford Fusion Preliminary Evaluation, the automaker reminded NHTSA:

A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

Lexus RX Floor Mat Recall: NHTSA’s House of Cards Adds a New Floor

An examination of NHTSA records surrounding a June recall for floor mat interference in 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used mischaracterized data to buttress its request that Toyota recall the floor mats. Further, NHTSA ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause for the unintended acceleration complaints consumers filed with the agency.

These documents affirm the pattern that has characterized NHTSA’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations – both informal and official -- since 2004:

  1. Dismiss the consumer’s description of the event, unless it conforms to the agency’s presumption of driver error or mechanical interference.
  2. Accept the explanations of the automaker or dealership of driver error or mechanical interference as completely accurate – even in the absence of any empirical evidence to support the contention.
  3. Dismiss any evidence of an electronic cause
  4. Settle for a limited, ineffective recall.
  5. Wait for another high-profile incident, consumer petition or accumulation of complaints to repeat the process

SRS has been examining the factual underpinnings of NHTSA’s actions in Toyota Unintended Acceleration since 2009. As we have in the past, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to Toyota’s most recent floor mat recall. We received 58 pages of documents, some of which were redacted under FOIA exemptions for confidential business information, personal identifying information and sections deemed “deliberative process.”

As we don’t know what information lies behind the redactions, we cannot assess the totality of the evidence behind NHTSA’s decision to seek a floor mat recall. However, what the unredacted portions show is there is scant evidence of a widespread floor mat interference problem and there is even less logic in the complaints NHTSA claims support its argument that a problem with the mats exists. But, there is much more evidence in the narratives of consumer complaints suggesting electronic causes of UA in 2010 Lexus RX 350.

The Pedal Error Error

If the Toyota Unintended Acceleration has taught us anything, it’s the importance of examining NHTSA’s process before accepting its conclusions. The authority of the federal government automatically confers, in large measure, a public (including the mainstream media) acceptance of its pronouncements of scientific certitude. Few take the time to study their foundations. To this end, SRS has devoted more time and resources to obtaining the agency’s original source documents, data and communications around investigations, rulemakings and NHTSA-sponsored reports than we care to count. We have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in pursuit of these informational bases.

Another thing we have learned: NHTSA really doesn’t want the public to know how it does what it does. Our FOIA requests have morphed into FOIA lawsuits (three and counting), as the agency either denies us information that is public or claims to have none, even when the crumbs NHTSA’s FOIA staff toss to us show unequivocally that, in fact, they do have the information.

And that brings us to Pedal Application Errors, NHTSA’s last nail in the Electronically-Caused UA coffin. This report made a number of strong claims regarding who is likely to make a pedal application error and how it is likely to occur. They do not bode well for any woman of a certain age who has the misfortune to be behind the wheel of an electronically caused UA. The report’s writers based on a variety of data sources, including crashes from the Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (MVCCS), the North Carolina state crash database, a media review of pedal misapplication news stories and the insights garnered from a panel of rehabilitation specialists. Naturally, we wanted to look at all these data, and we requested them.

The response from the government, to put it kindly, was less than complete. NHTSA claimed that it didn’t have any of the underlying data, except the list of crashes from the MVCCS. It sent us the transcript of the one-and-a-half day meeting of rehabilitation specialists and Dr. Richard Schmidt, that prodigious peddler of the all-purpose, wholly unsupported and unscientific pedal misapplication theory the auto industry – and NHTSA – loves.

DOT Settles Lawsuit over Toyota UA Documents, New Congressional Inquiry Raises More Questions

The dam against electronically caused unintended acceleration in Toyotas that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota built, with outrage, secrecy, pedal interference recalls, and capped with the February 2011 NHTSA-NASA report springs more leaks. The question is: Can they keep it from collapsing entirely?

Safety Research & Strategies continues to examine information showing that unintended acceleration still plagues Toyota vehicles and that many incidents cannot be explained by floor mats, bad drivers and sticky pedals. Recently, the Department of Transportation settled a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit with SRS, agreeing to turn over investigatory documents, videos and photos related to the agency’s involvement with a 2011 recall of Toyota and Lexus models for alleged accelerator entrapment by interior trim. (The agency also agreed to pay our lawyer’s fees – this from the Most Transparent Administration Ever.)

The recall was precipitated by the Timothy Scott incident. Scott is a former 2007 Lexus RX owner who reported a frightening UA event as he headed home from the gym one morning. In short order, Toyota bought Scott’s vehicle, and pronounced it a case of trim interference. NHTSA never looked at Scott’s Lexus, but began to investigate this root cause in other vehicles. Within six weeks, Toyota recalled the vehicles and NHTSA was all done.

We were eager to see just what the agency found out about the possibility of trim interference as a root cause of UA and what it didn’t want to show us– enough, at least, to try to stash it behind Exemption 5 of the FOIA, which protects agency deliberations. Imagine our amazement when the videos – sans audio- appear to show that the Lexus RX trim does not interfere with the accelerator -- or, not without a lot of manipulation of exemplar vehicles. We are no closer to understanding why NHTSA dropped its investigation, or how trim interference can cause a UA like Tim Scott experienced, or, more importantly, why we had to sue the DOT to get this.

Sudden Unintended Braking: The Mercedes Problem that Didn’t Go Away

German engineering ain’t what it used to be.

Melissa Marsala, a Mercedes owner from Cape Coral, Fla., was driving her 2001 ML430 at about 45 mph down a main thoroughfare, when her vehicle suddenly went into braking mode. The two vehicles behind her in the inner left lane slammed on their brakes to avoid a collision, and Marsala was able to ease the bucking vehicle onto the grassy median that divided the roadway.

“It terrified me,” Marsala recalled. “There was no reason for the brakes to engage. I was trying to come to a full stop but the car went boom-boom-boom-boom. It happened in an interval that was so quick. The car was skipping, smoke was coming off the wheel wells and you could smell the rubber burning. I veered it right into the median strip and it stopped itself.”

Those moments of sheer fright were courtesy of a malfunctioning yaw sensor – a problem primarily in the M-Class – well known to Mercedes, some M-class owners and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation. In 2007, NHTSA opened and quickly closed a Preliminary Evaluation into sudden unintended braking involving about 100,000 MY 2000-2001 M-class vehicles, without taking any action.

In May of 2007, Mercedes explained it all away to ODI at a presentation in which the automaker simulated electrical faults in the yaw rate sensor and showed how “the ESP [Electronic Stability Program] system is programmed to diagnose electrical faults and that brake applications resulting from yaw rate sensor electrical faults are very short in duration (0.3 seconds or less) and don’t affect vehicle control or stability.” NHTSA’s Vehicle Research and Test Center was unable to duplicate the problem in a vehicle that had experienced multiple events; and ODI’s attitude was: no documented crashes, low complaint rate, no problem.

NHTSA Proposes Rubber Stamp Brake Throttle Override Rule

For the second time in 40 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is attempting to upgrade the accelerator control standard by proposing that manufacturers be required to equip all vehicles with a brake override.  A brake override system cuts throttle voltage in electronic throttle control (ETC) vehicles when the brakes and throttle are in conflict. Variations of this type of fail-safe have been incorporated in a number of ETC equipped vehicles since the 1990s.

“We considered establishing a design requirement as the sole requirement for BTO, but the differences among BTO systems currently available from different vehicle manufacturers are significant enough that a design requirement by itself cannot effectively accommodate them all without being overly complex and/or design restrictive. By combining a relatively simple performance test with the basic equipment requirement described above, we can achieve a robust standard which is largely performance-based and minimally costly or burdensome.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is in direct reaction to the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) crisis, noting the August 2009 deaths of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in Lexus ES350 loaner that experienced a UA event at highway speed. But, the proposal appears to be more of a political response than a technological one. It ignores past recalls for UA events that are electronically caused; and it fails to base this upgrade on any statistical analysis. It merely codifies manufacturers’ current equipment without teasing out the differences between more effective and less effective brake override systems, such as the Toyota system, which doesn’t activate in some of the most frequently reported UA scenarios – when the driver’s foot is on the brake – or on no pedal. According to Toyota’s “Smart Stop Technology,” “the feature doesn’t engage if the brake pedal is depressed before the accelerator pedal. The driver must press the accelerator first and then depress the brake.”

Antony Anderson, a U.K.-based electrical engineering consultant who has studied unintended acceleration, says that the rule fundamentally misses the essential ingredient in any failsafe system – independence from the malfunctioning component. This is why many machines, from motorcycles to escalators, have separate kill switches that can independently remove power from the throttle, he says.

“For some reason, the automobile industry seems to think they don’t need to bother,” Anderson says. [The agency] “has a well-developed NHTSA-speak, where they are all the time trying to minimize the possibility of an electronic malfunction.”

“This just captures the state of the industry, not the state of the art,” says Neil Hanneman, an automotive engineer who have overseen automotive electronic designs and has consulted with Congress on Toyota unintended acceleration. “For it to really be a robust standard it would have to address things that have not been addressed yet – which will be with the electronics.”

Technical Upstart Schools NHTSA on Toyota Electronics

Why can’t consumers get with the program?

Toyota – even with its technical difficulties, bad press and a tsunami that devastated Japan last year – is still a very wealthy corporation with a multi-billion-dollar bottom line. We shudder to contemplate how many millions the automaker spent on public relations, intimidation campaigns, advertisements, image consultants, outside counsel and scientists for hire. The money was laid on thickly enough to keep things cozy on almost all fronts.

And yet….it cannot stop the maddening trickle of unintended acceleration crashes into supermarkets, restaurants and other benighted retail establishments. And it cannot stop the drip, drip, drip of questions from consumers. We are still reading Toyota UA complaints with great interest, and recently we came upon a complaint from a 2004 Tacoma owner from Hopkinton, New Hampshire who witnessed a UA event in his driveway – much like two Office of Defects Investigation engineers did about a year ago in the presence of Prius owner Joseph McClelland (see Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records)

Like Mr. McClelland, an electrical engineer who happened to be the director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Electric Reliability, this gentleman is not a typical consumer. He is, by his own description, an engineer who wrote a book on troubleshooting servo systems. Like Southern Illinois University Automotive Electronics Professor David Gilbert, another curious Toyota owner with the technical skills to run some tests, he has noted the lack of fail safes and redundancies and the high risk to safety.

Here is his April 18 report to NHTSA:

Automakers Blame Drivers, But Settle Unintended Acceleration Cases

Two recent settlements in Unintended Acceleration (UA) cases remind us that while Toyota has sucked all the oxygen in the room over this defect, other automakers’ products equipped with electronic throttle controls are also getting their share of complaints, causing their share of injury and property damage and winding up in civil court.

In the last month, Thomas J. Murray & Associates, a law firm based in Sandusky, Ohio, reached confidential settlements against Kia Motors America and Subaru for seriously injured plaintiffs who claimed that their vehicles suffered an unintended acceleration event.

The first case involved Mary McDaniels, a visiting nurse from Norton, Ohio, who was returning to the office after seeing a patient, when the throttle of her 2006 KIA Amanti suddenly opened, as she crept along in stop-and-go traffic. With vehicles in front of her and oncoming traffic directly to her left, McDaniels chose to steer her rapidly accelerating sedan off the road.

Attorney Molly O’Neill says that McDaniels testified that her first reaction was: “What is happening to me?” When McDaniels looked down to affirm the position of her foot, she saw that it was on the brake. The Amanti hit a ditch, became airborne, skidded and collided with a tree. McDaniels’ leg was fractured in several places. She is unable to walk without assistance as a result of the Dec. 26, 2007 crash and had to give up her job.

McDaniels v Kia Motors America went to trial in October. Over two weeks of testimony, the Murrray legal team was able to show that Kia’s “American engineers were aware of unintended acceleration or surging events not ascribed to driver error,” O’Neill says. “They surmised it could be electronic.” McDaniels’ Kia was bought as “new” with a full warranty, even though it had 6,900 miles on it at the time of purchase and had been used by Kia as an in-house vehicle.

Why Toyota Has a Whisker Across its Bumper

When you’ve shelled out big bucks for a message, the dissenters have to be squashed – and fast. Yesterday, Toyota public relations rapid response team tried to bring the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) problem back into its multi-million-dollar corral at the There’s Nothing to See Here, Folks Ranch.

Mike Michels, Vice President for External Communications of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., wrote an editorial, in response to a well-reported and written story by the Huffington Post’s Sharon Silke Carty about one of the most significant physical findings of the NASA Engineering Safety Center’s (NESC) study of the electronic causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles: tin whiskers. Tin whiskers are crystalline structures that emanate from tin and other alloys used as solder on printed circuit boards. These nearly microscopic metal hairs can bridge circuits, leading to electrical shorts and significant malfunctions. They have caused failures at nuclear power plants and medical devices and downed satellites. While we don’t believe that they are the cause of UA in all Toyota vehicles. Clearly, tin whiskers have been strongly implicated as a cause of UA in some Toyota vehicles.

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