NHTSA: No Evidence Prius Unintended Acceleration Linked to Known Causes

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has acknowledged what it has emphatically denied so far: Not all instances of Toyota Unintended Acceleration are linked to sticky pedals, floor mats or driver error. The UAs in a 2003 Prius witnessed by ODI engineers last May were not linked to “known causes.”

True, the agency response (see second page of report) to reporters’ questions about the Unintended Acceleration events two Office of Defects Investigations engineers witnessed, videoed and captured data from was tortured. The most interesting admission was swaddled in a lot of hot air about how wonderful and competent the agency is at ferreting out problems and protecting consumers, but it was there:

“We sent two investigators to evaluate and inspect a vehicle based on a complaint we received (complaint number 10428551) and did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases,” [emphasis ours] the agency said in a statement. “NHTSA concluded that the speed of the vehicle could easily be controlled by the brakes. In contrast to other UA complaints, the vehicle displayed ample warning lights for the driver indicating the car had encountered problems.”

Nine Recalls, Ten Investigations and Toyota Unintended Acceleration Continues

As part of our ongoing investigation into Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles, Safety Research & Strategies has identified 330 UA complaints reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for incidents that occurred in 2011. These complaints range from consumers who experienced multiple instances of UA to events that resulted in a crash. Below, we’ve captured six of those stories in interviews with Toyota owners.

In addition, a separate review identified 247 unique UA incidents following repairs made to the vehicle in one or more of the Toyota recall remedies.

The 2011 NHTSA complaint data suggest that Toyota has not recalled all of the vehicles in need of a remedy. The post-recall UA incidents, reported to the agency between February 2010 and January 2012, further suggest that the remedies were ineffective.

What is most striking in reading the 2011 complaints is how little anything has changed. The most troubled vehicles – the Camry, the Tacoma and Lexus ES350 – continue to show up in the complaints. The scenarios vehicle owners report are the same:

* Low speed incidents, often described as occurring while parking or repositioning a vehicle, during which vehicles accelerate or surge very quickly while the driver is braking or lightly pressing on the accelerator pedal.

* High speed incidents, often described as occurring on highways, during which vehicle speed increases without increased driver pressure on the accelerator pedal, or highway speed that is maintained after the driver has removed his or her foot from the accelerator pedal.

* Incidents in which vehicles are described as hesitating, surging, or lurching. Consumers reporting this type of incident often indicate that their vehicles are not immediately responsive to pressure on the accelerator pedal; instead there is a delay between operator input and acceleration, followed by higher acceleration than intended, often described as a surge or lurch.

    As ever, the vast majority are low-speed/parking incidents, resulting in property damage. However, there continue to be high-speed, long duration events and cruise control-related events. Toyota dutifully inspects these vehicles and tells the owner that the car is “operating as designed.” Dealers continue to follow the floor mat/driver error script.

    One thing that appears to have changed: more Toyota owners, now educated about Toyota’s UA problems, have a strategy for dealing with an incident and also take note of the position of their feet. Many drivers specifically report braking at the time of the UA, and shifting the transmission into neutral to bring the vehicle under control. Here are their stories.

    How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today

    Last month, we reported a Florida circuit judge’s extraordinary decision to set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, based on evidence and testimony that Ford had concealed an electronic cause of unintended acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and its own expert witnesses. Judge William T. Swigert’s 51-page decision in Stimpson v Ford also outlines how decades of the automaker’s dissembling to limit its liability in civil lawsuits helped to mire the thinking about root causes of unintended acceleration in the limited context of mechanical agency, even as the electronic sophistication – and the potential for defects and unanticipated interactions between systems – in vehicles grew.

    That a large corporation would conceal a deadly problem to protect its interests is hardly news – although the systemic and exacting strategies Ford employed in this case are notable. What makes this story important is how Ford also re-wrote the history on this issue and helped to shape the agency’s thinking about an ongoing problem for decades hence. We have only the public record regarding Toyota UA at our disposal – and precious little of that has actually been made public – so we can’t know how Toyota has assessed its own UA problem; if and what parallels in corporate misdirection might be drawn between Ford and Toyota. But one can see how Ford’s actions back in the 1980s still resonate with the agency today and how it has kept NHTSA from advancing its knowledge in electronic causes of UA that are not already detected by the vehicle diagnostics.

    The Emergence of a Defect in the Age of Audi SUA

    As recounted in the Judge Swigert’s order, the history of Ford and unintended acceleration goes back to 1973, when Ford’s cruise control was under development. Ford Engineer William Follmer “warned about the risk posed by electromagnetic interference, and cautioned that ‘to avoid disaster’ it was imperative to incorporate failsafe protection against EMI in the system’s design.” In 1976, two Ford engineers obtained a patent describing a design for the cruise control system's printed circuit board to reduce the risk of a sudden acceleration posed by EMI.

    Independent Scientists Find More Trouble in Toyotas

    A new technical paper from the research scientists at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) buttresses the findings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA’s Engineering Safety Center investigation into Toyota unintended acceleration: Toyota vehicles with potentiometer type accelerator pedal position sensors have a propensity to grow tin whiskers that can and do cause shorts in a highly sensitive engine management area.

    Researchers Bhanu Sood, Michael Osterman and Michael Pecht studied a pedal assemblies performed a physical analysis of an engine control system from a 2005 Camry XLE, V-6 and an accelerator pedal assembly from a defunct 2002 Camry. The 2005 engine control system included the ECM, an accelerator pedal unit, throttle body, electrical connectors and electrical connecting cables.

    NHTSA-NASA Reports Show That Toyota Electronics are Deficient – Can Lead to Unintended Acceleration: Toyota’s Involvement Exposed in New Documents

    REHOBOTH, MASS – The Safety Record, Safety Research & Strategies’ watchdog publication, published its new findings on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) reports on Toyota Unintended Acceleration.  Following extensive review of those reports and previously unavailable documents recently released by NHTSA and interviews with numerous scientists and experts, the authors found that:

    • - NASA identified numerous failures in Toyota electronics that could lead to unwanted acceleration.
    • - The report was heavily influenced by Toyota and its experts, including Exponent.
    • - The reports were narrowly construed examinations of limited vehicles and components.
    • - Much of the reports remain shrouded in secrecy.

    What Got Stuck in NHTSA’s Craw

    More than a year ago, NHTSA whomped Toyota upside the pocketbook with a $16.4 million fine for failing to recall 2.3 million vehicles with defective accelerator pedals. It was just slightly more than chump change to billionaire Toyota, but at the time, everyone gasped at the largest civil penalty the agency had levied against an automaker –ever.

    As described by Toyota, the so-called sticky pedals, manufactured by supplier CTS, were slow to return to idle and could become stuck in a partially depressed position. Just for the record, we’d like to remind our readers that the SRS has always argued that a sticky pedal has nothing to do with unintended acceleration--which is not to say that this problem isn't a safety defect -- it just doesn't lead to the type of unintended acceleration incidents reported by drivers.  But NHTSA and Toyota have always enjoyed conflating the two, without offering any evidence that sticky pedals cause unintended acceleration events. It gave the appearance that all concerned were actually doing something about the problem.

    Updated Toyota Report: The Recall Ate My Floormat!

    Well, here we are, 14 months after Toyota began admitting to the world that it could no longer design a simple pedal, a floor mat or a floor pan, by launching Phase I of many phases of a recall to replace all-weather floor mats that may entrap the accelerator. Initially, the recall 90L, the mother of all floor mat recalls, was meant to switch those sneaky little All-Weather Floor Mats out of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles.  (See  Toyota All-Weather Floor Mat Entrapment)

    Another Attack of the Killer Floor Mats: Sarasota Edition

    Dear Toyota:

    Why did you buy back Tim Scott’s 2007 Lexus RX? We mean, really? You gave him a bunch of different reasons, but he doesn’t believe you. (We’re finding it a little hard to swallow, too.)

    Awaiting your reply,

    SRS

    Here’s Tim Scott’s story. In early December, as NHTSA and NASA were putting the finishing touches on their reports saying that there is nothing wrong with Toyota’s electronics or software, Scott experienced an unintended acceleration event in his 2007 Lexus RX350, on his way home from the gym. Here’s the narrative that Scott, 46, the chief financial officer for the International Union of Police Associations, wrote:

    We Read the Report. Did Ray?

    Last week, NHTSA pitched its two technical tomes on Toyota unintended acceleration at a pack of reporters, declared that the automaker’s electronics were fine, and ran away. Our esteemed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood then made the media rounds, grousing that the critics hadn’t read the report, which leads us to ask: Did Ray?

    We’ve been reading it and re-reading it, and conferring with a wide range of technical experts – some of whom have extensive experience in engine management control design, validation and testing. And we gotta tell you, Ray, we aren’t ready to buy our kid a new Toyota.

    Far from exonerating Toyota electronics, the reports by NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) confirm the paucity of the automaker’s safety diagnostics. The NESC team also identifies how the two signals in the accelerator pedal position sensor can be shorted in the real world – leading to an open throttle (aka, tin whiskers). Hell, NESC found the potential in three pedals – that’s a pretty significant percentage in a very small sample. Tin whiskers are such a serious issue that NASA has devoted considerable resources to studying them. They have wreaked electronic havoc on everything from medical devices to weapons systems and satellites. Yet, the NESC report treated the discovery of tin whiskers in a third of their pedal sample like a dead end, instead of a promising avenue of study.

    NHTSA Shuts the Door on Toyota Electronics in High Speed SUA – NASA, Not so Much

    In his characteristically colorful way, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told reporters today: “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics system, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.”

    LaHood issued this scientific proclamation based on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration “rigorous” examination of nine Toyotas in which the drivers complained about Sudden Unintended Acceleration.

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