Toyota Throws a Hissy

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 aired a six-minute-plus story about a 2006 confidential Toyota document showing that a pre-production vehicle in Japan experienced an unintended acceleration. The vehicle was an overseas model, identified as the 250L, equipped with adaptive cruise control. Its U.S. counterpart did not use that system, but the internal report did note that a “fail-safe overhaul” would be needed for another production vehicle that was sold in the U.S. -- the Toyota Tundra.

Toyota tried to fight off the story with the survival instinct of a 1,000-lb. blue marlin at the end of a reel and tackle. Its central argument was that the document had been mistranslated and the condition noted in the pre-production test had nothing to do with unintended acceleration. The automaker trotted out English language speaker and Toyota entertainment systems engineer Kristin Tabar to rebut the translation’s literal and substantive meaning. CNN paid a Japanese translation house with experience in automotive technical documents to take a crack at it, and its version was pretty similar to the first English translation. (You can watch the story here.)

There were a series of legal parleys, but when the dust settled, Toyota lost, the story aired and the public relations team was left with nothing but its poison pen. In high dudgeon, Toyota complained about CNN’s unmitigated temerity to suggest the Toyota has been less than truthful in discussing all of the possible causes of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

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.

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 Keeps Toyota’s Secrets, Part II

    Among safety advocates’ most vociferous criticisms of NHTSA and NASA’s investigation into Toyota Unintended Acceleration were the copious black smears over key bits of data and text in their twin reports released last February. These redactions have kept independent scientists from knowing exactly what the investigators did, irrespective of assessing the quality of the research.  (See: How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data)

    Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, ever the assiduous students of NHTSA’s statistical and informational folkways, went for broke. Shortly after the reports were released, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for non-redacted versions of the reports and supporting material that was missing from the record. In response, NHTSA publicly released some of the information in the form of less redacted versions of Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems and Technical Support to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Reported Toyota Motor Corporation Unintended Acceleration Investigation, but continued to withhold other information.

    Judge Finds Ford Fraudulently Concealed Electronic Causes of Unintended Acceleration

    The Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit has set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, blasting the automaker for defrauding the court and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and for concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles.

    In his withering decision, Senior Judge William T. Swigert of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Sumter County, Florida ordered a new trial in which the jury would only consider compensatory and punitive damages in Stimpson v. Ford. The post-trial order is a victory for Attorney Thomas J. Murray, of Murray & Murray based in Sandusky, Ohio, who represented the Stimpson family.

    The case concerned an October 28, 2003 crash which left Peggy Stimpson permanently paralyzed. Her husband alleged that he was unable to stop the couple’s 1991 Ford Aerostar, when it suddenly accelerated from their carport as he put the van into gear. The Aerostar hurtled more than 100 feet, and crashed into a utility pole.

    How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data

    Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corp. have released a new analysis for Safety Research & Strategies that examines the statistical underpinnings of the NHTSA and NASA reports on Toyota Unintended Acceleration which shows that the agencies based their conclusions about the possibility of an electronic cause on a series of unsupportable suppositions, miscoded data and secret warranty data reported by Toyota’s litigation defense experts, Exponent.

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