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.

How to Get Toyota to Listen to Customers. Hint: Bring Your Lawyer

In May 2011, everybody at Toyota North America joined hands and sung Kumbaya – it was the release of the much-vaunted A Road Forward: The Report of the Toyota North American Quality Advisory Panel. The report was part of a public relations blitz to restore consumer confidence in Toyota products in the wake of the Unintended Acceleration debacle. And, within the 60 pages of corporate soul-searching was the way back home – and it ran right through Toyota’s customers. The glossy document was laced with admissions that Toyota had failed to heed the voices of its customers such as this:

“Toyota has recognized that many of the challenges it faced in 2009 and 2010 were a result of failures to adequately listen to and incorporate external feedback from various stakeholders, including consumers, third-party rating agencies, and regulators.”

A company personage no less distinguished than Stephen St. Angelo, Toyota’s North American Chief Quality Officer, promised the dawn of a new day:

“Right from the outset, we told them we wanted them to be straightforward with us, because we seriously want to keep improving our processes and our transparency. It is important to note that the Panel focused primarily on how we operate and communicate. While I am glad they’ve recognized the positive changes we’ve already made, I also appreciate how they want us to keep at it. I’ve told them we intend to do just that.”

So, how have they been doing with that listening stuff? Well that depends.

If you are a Toyota or Lexus customer who has merely complained about a UA event, you may not get beyond conversations with their customer care folks or a visit from the SMART team, who will tell you that your car’s just fine.

But, if you are a consumer who has been drawn into the multi-state litigation, Toyota will listen to you in a day-long deposition, in which Toyota wants you to bring every scrap of communication you made or received about Toyota – including with your family.

Toyota sought to depose at least eight consumers who experienced a UA in their Toyotas, most of them named by the plaintiff’s attorneys as “absent class members.” Although the plaintiffs withdrew some of their names, experts relied on a few of those incidents in formulating their opinions. Naturally, Toyota wants their own crack at these folks. Earlier this month, Judge Selna, who is overseeing the Multi-District Litigation in Orange County California, ruled that it saw little point in compelling a deposition since the absent class member is not going to offer any evidence to support class certification. Toyota has challenged this ruling. The legal tug-of-war continues.

Toyota: The Other Numbers

This morning National Public Radio reported Toyota sold 5 million vehicles in the last six months.  These strong sales numbers mean the company may be poised to regain the number one automaker slot from GM.  This talk of Toyota numbers had us here at Safety Research & Strategies looking at some other data -- complaints involving Toyota unintended acceleration and what’s been reported publicly in the last year.

And we would be remiss if we failed to note Toyota’s latest directive to the press about how to properly address Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane.  But first, the numbers:  We reviewed unintended acceleration incidents involving Toyota vehicles reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between June 1, 2011 and July 17, 2012.  To identify these reports, we examined the NHTSA data for all consumer complaints containing keywords related to UA that were submitted during that time period. We then reviewed each complaint record to determine if it described a UA incident. So here they are:

- 368 total incidents

- 36 involved vehicles described as having had at least one UA recall remedy performed prior to the incident.

-  95 reported injuries; none of these incidents resulted in a fatality.

So what do we make of this?  Despite the Very Important Scientists and the Secretary of Transportation LaHood’s proclamation that “The verdict is in” and “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period,” consumers are still taking the time to report their experience to the government – and many report incidents that don’t seem to be explained by floor mats, “sticky” pedals, or driver error.  You can read them here.

Toyota and the Case of the Electronic Floor Mat Entrapment

As the last work week in June slouched to a close, Toyota announced another floor mat recall – this time for 154,000 model year 2010 Lexus RX350 and RX450 H vehicles. Frankly, we were slack jawed. This is the automaker’s fifth floor mat recall since 2005 and the eleventh alleging that unintended acceleration was caused by something interfering with the accelerator pedal – all weather mats, plastic trim, condensation in the pedal’s friction lever. That’s double digits, people.

NHTSA quickly claimed credit for influencing the recall:

“NHTSA approached Toyota regarding this issue late last month after the agency observed an increase in consumer complaints and other reports regarding pedal entrapment in these vehicles. When Toyota confirmed last week that it had received a significant volume of complaints on the same issue, NHTSA asked the manufacturer to conduct a recall.”

We guess that at this point, NHTSA and Toyota are tight enough that the agency can dispense with the whole investigation thing and just pick up the phone. So, the public doesn’t know what data the agency collected, and how many complaints directly to Toyota constitutes “a significant volume.”

The agency said that it had “carefully” reviewed “the available data” and “does not currently believe the issue involves additional vehicles beyond those indicated as part of the recall.” “..NHTSA anticipates the remedy proposed by Toyota will address the problem.”

Sadly, we do not share the agency’s confidence.  We have carefully reviewed the 2010 RX350 speed control complaints and we noticed something pretty interesting. Drivers were reporting that during the unintended acceleration event, the “brake failure” telltale on the dash was lit up. Check out ODI 10445439, reported to NHTSA last October:

On Oct. 5, 2011 at 7:45 am, I was traveling on a one lane road each way in rural Connecticut (35 mph zone). I decided to pass a car that was traveling well below the speed limit when my Lexus RX350 lurched forward suddenly and then had a huge burst of accelerating speed. I applied my foot to the brakes and the car slowed very slightly, but started to buck a little and then once again felt like it kicked into a higher gear. My dashboard was flashing "brake failure." as I looked down and saw that my foot was firmly planted down on the brakes. Fortunately, there were few cars on the road and only once did I have to pass a car on a blind curve hoping no one was approaching from the other way, so as to avoid ramming a car in front of me. I had resolved in my mind that I was going to crash, and was trying to find a place to take the car off the road while trying to minimize injury to me. I stopped looking at my speed, but it was clearly in excess of 60 mph in a 35 mph zone. I was lucky that day, since there were few cars on the road and the stretch of road I was on was fairly straight. I drove this way for about 1.5 miles when it then occurred to me to shift the car into neutral. Once I did this, the car eventually reduced speed to about 5-10 mph. I threw the car into park and jumped out of the vehicle, which at this point was engulfed in smoke from the failed brakes. Lexus blamed the incident on a stuck accelerator pad, although they admitted when the car came to their shop the pad was not stuck. I know factually that the pad was not stuck, since I looked down at my feet during the episode and saw my foot on the brake, and the accelerator pad in its normal position. This was clearly an incident of sudden acceleration.

Or ODI 10445422, concerning a January 25 UA:

“I went out to grab a bite to eat for my daughter and I came to a stop light at a major intersection. I received the turn arrow so I accelerated thru the turn and then punched the gas to make it thru the next light that will turn red if you don't give it a little gas to get thru it. I make it thru the light and get in the right lane to slow down to make my turn and my brakes don't work and my car starts accelerating on its own. I have no control of the speed so I throw the car in neutral and keep slamming the brakes while the brake malfunction light appears. I’m not sure how my car slows down and I make a right turn into a parking lot and my engine is still sounding like it is accelerating and I am in neutral. My car rolled to a stop, I shut it down and called the Lexus line. The [sic] had a towing company out within an hour and the tow truck driver told me this is at least the 10th time he has hauled this type of car for the same thing.”

Ford Offers “False” Testimony; Alliance Swears to It

From the annals of chutzpah: On March 12, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers filed a friend of the court brief to head off a potentially disastrous breach in the auto industry’s carefully constructed dam around the causes of unintended acceleration (UA). To wit, there are no electronic causes of unintended acceleration. This phenomenon, as the industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have it, is solely caused by drivers hitting the wrong pedal and mechanical causes, such as pedal entrapment and bound Bowden cables. Electronic systems cannot have electronic malfunctions that can go undetected or cause UA, got that?

William T. Swigert, the Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, however, had no respect for industry/government mythology. He set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, after deciding that Ford’s victory in Stimpson v. Ford was won with “false and misleading” testimony and defrauded the federal government to boot, by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles. (See How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today)

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.”

The Poker Face of Wall Street Calls NHTSA’s Bluff

We read uber-Risk Manager and author of The Poker Face of Wall Street, Aaron Brown’s post “Sympathy for the Flash Crash” in Minyanville, a business and investment information website, with great enthusiasm. It was fascinating to see a business pundit draw parallels between Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the flash crash of May 6, 2010, in which the Dow dropped about 1,000 points, but recovered almost immediately afterward. It was refreshing to read a financial columnist who actually understands what happened after NHTSA tried to wrest control over an elusive technical problem. He writes:

“…the net result was that the agency ordered the recall of 8 million vehicles and levied the maximum allowed civil fine, then waited for the problem to go away on its own before issuing a study denying there had been a problem in the first place because they looked really hard and couldn’t find one.

When you don’t understand a system, throwing experts at it to announce they can’t understand what happened so it must have been human error, is an unconvincing—but irresistible—tactic.”

While we part company with Mr. Brown over the possibility and advisability of implementing regulation to fix the problem, and a few other details, his viewpoint is worth a read. The good folks at Minyanville kindly gave us permission to re-print it.  (The original article can found here on Minyanville.)


Sympathy for the Flash Crash

Reprinted with permission from Minyanville

By Aaron Brown May 04, 2012 9:00 am

The entire modern world has become too complex for anyone to understand, and therefore, too complex for anyone to fix with top-down rulemaking.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL When I learned to drive 40 years ago, there were direct mechanical linkages between the car’s controls and its wheels and power train. When I turned the steering wheel, my muscle power (mediated by some levers and gears) changed the direction of the wheels. Accelerator, brakes, heater dial -- all affected things through direct physical actions. We make fun of someone who confuses effects with causes by saying he tries to slow down a car by moving the speedometer needle. But in that 1962 model VW bus, pushing down the speedometer needle would, in fact, increase friction on one rear wheel and reduce the speed of the car. The cable was too delicate to provide significant deceleration, but in physical principle it would work.

Another Toyota SUA Fatality?

The Whittier Daily News reported yesterday on the death of 26-year-old Rosie Manzanares, a bicyclist who was struck and killed yesterday by a Toyota driver backing out of a parking space.

According to the California Highway Patrol of Santa Fe Springs, Angelica Cuevas, 78, was backing her 2012 Camry from a parking spot as Manzanares rode by:

“Halfway out of the parking stall, Mrs. Cuevas stopped her vehicle. As Ms. Manzanares was riding directly behind Mrs. Cuevas' vehicle, Mrs. Cuevas rapidly accelerated her vehicle for unknown reasons.”

Given Cuevas’ age, we know that NHTSA and Toyota would chuck her case into the driver error file without a backward glance. We’re not so sure. We don’t know all the facts in the Manzanares incident, but it appears to have the key ingredients of a Toyota Unintended Acceleration parking lot incident.

These scenarios were not the subject of NHTSA’s most exhaustive research effort ever undertaken anywhere, by anyone, about anything. But, they are common. Even though the NHTSA-NASA Super Team didn’t bother to study surges at low speed, the agency noted their frequency in Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems:

“Further review of the stationary and low speed incidents (combined) found that parking lot entry and exit accounted for the largest share of these incidents (40% of VOQs 64% of crashes. Many of the parking maneuver narratives reported incidents characterized by high engine power either after the driver applied the brake or immediately after shifting the transmission.”

In the case of older Toyotas with Potentiometer-type pedals one of the known electronic reasons was shorts caused by tin whiskers. The NASA scientists running tests on defective Camry pedals found that there is one scenario in which a resistive short in the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor could lead to a surge without setting a diagnostic trouble code:

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.

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