What We Know About Toyota Electronics

While NHTSA and NASA have been busy in their test labs, we’ve been busy doing some testing of our own. And, although our findings are preliminary, we’re uncovering important clues to the gaps in Toyota’s electronic safety net. We haven’t seen NHTSA’s report, but we’re hearing the sound of hands dusting themselves off and feet walking away. What’s troubling is examinations of the complaint data consistently show statistically significant increases in SUA complaints in Toyota models when equipped with its Electronic Throttle Control system.

Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration: We’ve Got the Numbers!

Safety Research & Strategies has completed our latest review of Toyota unintended acceleration complaint data, and they confirm that Toyota owners are still reporting SUA incidents – even those who had taken their vehicles in for the recall repairs.

Our database consists of incidents from the following sources:

- Consumer complaints to NHTSA through January 5, 2011

- Toyota-submitted claims from several NHTSA investigations into unintended acceleration

- Incidents reported by media organizations

- Consumer contacts made to our organization and others that are reporting incidents that they have received.

Every effort has been made to identify duplicate records and combine them.  However, often the reports do not provide enough detail to link incidents to other reports.  There are likely some duplicates among our records – if there are, they are few.

So What About the Defects?

In 2010, NHTSA levied nearly $50 million in fines against Toyota for flouting the recall regulations in three separate instances. The total represents the largest single fines in the agency’s history – and, (although we haven’t checked) quite possibly more than the agency has ever collected from any and all automakers in 40 years of existence.

This tough stance on recall timeliness is welcome – but does not resolve the larger issues raised by Toyota unintended acceleration – namely how defects are defined in the era of automotive electronics and how such defects are investigated when they are rare, multi-root-cause, and potentially deadly?

The dribble of documents released by the Multi-District Litigation and Congress so far show that UA has been duplicated by Toyota technicians and, contrary to attempts by Toyota advocates and agency investigators to pass off all incidents as driver error, sticky pedals, big shoes and floor mats, there are instances when reliable technical personnel take the vehicle for a test spin and experience UA with no pedal involvement. In fact, we have discovered that Toyota techs were able to duplicate UA in one of very public and widely debated case – but lied to the consumer about it. (We’ll feature that story in a future post.)

Double Ding for Toyota

Toyota closes out 2010 by shelling out another $32.4 million to the government for tardiness. The two fines – for failing to recall its floor mats and defective relay rods within five days of determining a defect – were disclosed yesterday.

Three record fines in one year ain’t beanbag. In all three cases – the relay rods, the accelerator pedal and the floor mats – Toyota had recalled the affected vehicles overseas months before it got around to recalling those components here. It’s refreshing to see the agency enforce the law. But penalizing a manufacturer for failing to file a timely defect report only requires counting to five. The agency will greet 2011 with the much more complicated issue of unintended acceleration hanging in the balance. We’ll address that in a future post.

In the meantime, back to the fines. The details were MIA. NHTSA did not say when it thought Toyota had a duty to recall those components. Toyota didn’t admit it did anything wrong. Since the agency hasn’t made its case for the penalty to the public, the Safety Record Blog will do it for them.

Is This the Best You Can Do?

Time to gas up the Toyota PR engine. Yesterday, ABC News broke the latest allegations of Multi-District Litigation – that Toyota technicians had duplicated owners’ SUA events in incidents that didn’t set DTCs, and in two cases, bought back the vehicles and swore the customer to secrecy. (Remember that expensive advice Toyota bought in February from the BSG Group? “Portray transparency, open and honest.”) In response, the World’s Number One Automaker sputtered:

SRS Releases Update Report: Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Eight months have passed since Congress called out NHTSA and Toyota for failing to address Sudden Unintended Acceleration. The agency and the automaker claim they've learned nothing new about the problem, but there's nothing wrong with our learning curve. Behind the barrage of PR are all those niggling little facts, and once again, SRS has assembled them into the go-to Toyota SUA reference guide.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Musical Tribute to Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

What do you do when you make your living by guitar and you experience an SUA in your Toyota? You write a song about it, of course. Kris Kitko, a professional musician from Bismarck, North Dakota was in her 2002 low-mileage Camry, heading down Route 83 when her vehicle suddenly accelerated. She had set the cruise control to the 70 mph speed limit, and was traveling for several miles, without touching the accelerator pedal and without incident. Suddenly, she says, “it felt like I was in a rocket -- it felt like the pedal hit the floor. I had a passenger in the car and she let out a scream. It made it close to 80 mph pretty quickly. Thankfully, pressing the brake was all it took. As soon as I touched the brakes it stopped.”

Kitko wasn’t sure what to do next, so she pulled over and called her answering machine and left a message explaining what had happened, in case the Camry misbehaved again with more dire consequences.

Toyota’s Brain Hurts

Keep repeating: Toyota’s fault detection system is perfect. Toyota’s fault detection system is perfect. Toyota’s fault detection system is perrrrrfect…..

Did that help?

Number One Automaker Toyota has hypnotized NHTSA in several sudden unintended acceleration investigations by chanting that phrase. Its fault detection system could not be breached, Toyota said, and therefore drivers who reported SUA were nuts or incompetent.

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota, Part II

After the Wall Street Journal plastered the front page a few weeks ago claiming NHTSA had “black box” (aka Event Data Recorder or EDR) data to support that driver error, not electronics, was the cause of the unintended acceleration issues in Toyotas, the headline is back yet again following a NHTSA Congressional briefing yesterday.

The WSJ in a subsequent story identified George Person, recently retired head of the recall division at NHTSA, as the source.  (see No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota and Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Acceleration Cover-Up)

Money for Nothing and Complaints for Free

Interesting fact: A raft of academic and industry studies show that customers who complain and have their complaint successfully resolved bring in more money to the company than it costs to fix the problem.

In the topsy-turvy Toyota World, however, it’s the customers who are already happy that get the red carpet treatment and big bucks. Have you heard about Nick and Sharyn Davis, from Parker County, Texas? You will soon. According to The Weatherford Democrat, the Davises are among the lucky winners in a Toyota advertising campaign, touting “real people with real stories about their Toyotas. And, the Davises are part of those real people.”

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