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Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records

In mid-May, two engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation witnessed a 2003 Prius, owned by a high-ranking government official, accelerate on its own several times while on a test drive with the owner, without interference from the floor mat, without a stuck accelerator pedal or the driver’s foot on any pedal.

“They said: Did you see that?” the Prius owner recalled in a sworn statement.  “This vehicle is not safe, and this could be a real safety problem.”

They videotaped these incidents, excited that, at long last, they had caught a Toyota in the act of unintended acceleration, with a clear electronic cause. The engineers downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncommanded in the owner’s garage and admonished the owner to preserve his vehicle, untouched, for further research.

But three months later, the agency decided that there was no problem at all. The agency thanked the Prius owner for his time and said that it was not interested in studying his vehicle. This critical discovery was never made public. The agency did not even put this consumer complaint into its complaint database, until months later, at the request of Safety Research & Strategies.

Today, for the second time in as many months, SRS sued NHTSA for documents, alleging that NHTSA has improperly withheld material that has vital public interest.

Officially, NHTSA had closed its investigation into Toyota UA three months earlier with the release of its reports 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. Written by the agency and its contactor, the NASA Engineering Safety Center, these assessments did not foreclose the possibility that UA could have an electronic cause. In fact, the NASA scientists found physical evidence of one electronic cause of UA in some Toyotas: tin whiskers in the accelerator pedal position sensor. But U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who presented the results to the media, was firm in his characterization:

“The jury is back,” he announced. “The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period.”

Nonetheless, Prius owner Joseph H. McClelland is not your typical Toyota owner. He is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Director of the Office of Electric Reliability. A member of the FERC since 2004 and the agency’s first director of the Office of Electric Reliability since 2007, McClelland is an electrical engineer with more than two decades’ experience in the electric utility industry and cyber security.

And ODI’s visit to McClelland’s Chambersburg, PA home was not your typical consumer vehicle examination. Agency engineers were witnesses to and collected real-time data of Toyota Unintended Acceleration. If the agency was not pursuing this incident, Safety Research & Strategies, which has been studying the Toyota Unintended Acceleration issue for more than two years, was interested in gathering the details of NHTSA’s examination of McClelland’s Prius. In late September, SRS submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all documentation associated with McClelland’s complaint to the agency. The agency turned over six pages, a few hand-written notes and a couple of heavily redacted emails. It refused to release the videos, photographs and computer data ODI generated that day.

“For years now, Toyota has been telling the public that there are no causes of unintended acceleration in their vehicles beyond floor mats, sticky pedals and confused drivers. NHTSA has stood by their side nodding in agreement. The two have repeatedly told consumers that the incidents they have reported – as they have reported them – could not have happened,” Sean Kane, President of Safety Research & Strategies, said.  “Mr. McClelland’s Prius and the NHTSA investigation of his unintended acceleration put the lie to all of that. Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles continues to this day, and the public has a right to know why.  The agency needs to stop hiding evidence and release the videotapes and documents immediately.”

The McClelland Incidents

McClelland bought his 2003 Prius used from Auto Bargains. The vehicle had been rear-ended at about 8,000 miles, but the engine drive train and the hybrid system were still intact. The rear end was repaired and in the course of eight years of commuting the vehicle accumulated about 280,000 miles.  Except for a failure of the exhaust system,  the Prius performed extremely well for many years and over many miles. But in early May, McClelland’s Prius accelerated unintentionally numerous times.

He was on his way to work, not far from his home, when the vehicle suddenly went to “severe acceleration,” he recounted in a sworn statement. McClelland knew about the Toyota UA controversy.

“So, immediately I checked the position of floor mat.  The floor mat wasn't up against the accelerator pedal.  I put my toe up against the back of the accelerator pedal to see if it was stuck.  It was not stuck; it was fully up.  So it had nothing to do with either the floor mat or the accelerator pedal.  So that led me to believe that the vehicle was accelerating on its own and I needed to get it off the road and try to re-set it by shutting the vehicle off and restarting it,” he said in his statement.

Once safely off the roadway, he shifted the transmission into neutral and shut the engine off. About two miles later, McClellan’s Prius accelerated again, as he gave a little gas to maintain speed:

“The engine started to rev,” he recalled in his sworn statement. “Actually, almost roaring, and the vehicle started to pick up speed, but I was very well aware of the  surroundings, so I was able to pull over again to the left into a shopping center, put it in park, stop it, and reset it, and get the vehicle moving again.”

The Prius continued to accelerate on its own throughout his drive to Washington on his way to testify before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and home again. He immediately contacted NHTSA, and a week later, an agency representative returned his call. He advised McClelland to keep the vehicle parked until the engineers could come out and take a look.

NHTSA ODI Engineers Videotape Unintended Acceleration

On May 17, McClelland and the NHTSA engineers met. The ODI staffers were clear: they had never found a cause for UA in a Toyota other than floor mats, sticking pedals and driver error. McClelland assured them that none of those was the cause of his incidents. The trio went for a test drive to see if the Prius would malfunction in their presence. McClelland drove the vehicle to the site of his first UA experience:

“[The Prius] started to accelerate and speed.  The engine was racing and, you know, we went around the turn and started for the straight away where we could, again, pull off the road and reset the vehicle. They asked at that point if while the vehicle was accelerating, they asked if the floor mat was in place or if the accelerator was stuck, and I lifted my foot up and I said, ‘Check for yourself.’ The engineer “leaned over and saw the floor mat in place and the accelerator was all the way up to a position where it wasn't depressed and he confirmed, ‘You're right. This vehicle is doing it on its own.’ ”

McClelland pulled over, shifted the vehicle into neutral and shut the engine down.  The trio repeated the sequence. And the Prius continued to experience unintended accelerations, while the ODI engineers videotaped it. “They generally seemed excited.”  McClelland said in his sworn statement.  “They said that they hadn't seen a vehicle display this type of behavior before, capturing the information in real-time, and they said this could be an important vehicle for the sudden accelerations and it might help put some of the pieces together.”

Using their laptop, the engineers attempted to pull error codes from the ECM. When they failed to find any, they called in a colleague for an on-the-fly computer consultation. After an hour of configuring, the engineers were able to download data from the ECM. One showed McClelland a particular data field “where the voltage from the accelerator showed zero volts, which means it wasn't engaged and wasn't depressed, and yet the computer, on-board computer was calling for the engine to accelerate twice its idling speed and, actually, calling for more than twice.  So two times as much and then more because while it's running the vehicle, even in parked mode, it went into sudden acceleration on more than one occasion,” McClelland said in his sworn statement.  “So they were pulling that information in real-time, and that was just one data field.  It looked like they had a lot of other data fields that they were capturing and recording and keeping for further analysis, so I could expect software versions and printed copy would be available.”

The trio returned the Prius to McClelland’s garage after the Prius experienced three unintended accelerations. The vehicle had a fourth incident on the way back to McClelland’s home, and then a fifth while parked. McClelland had backed the Prius into his garage, and one engineer remained “in the vehicle with his leg out and the door opened and he was extracting data.  It went into sudden acceleration,” McClelland recalled in his sworn statement.

“The engine started to race, and he asked if he could put it in drive, and I was very concerned at that point. I said if you put in drive, I'm not sure what will happen.  If that car takes off on you, if you put it in drive, it's going to take that door off and probably sever your leg.  I said you need to set the parking brake and you need to stand on that brake and get your leg inside if you want to put it in drive.  You do that, then I'm okay with you putting it in drive. He did it, and sure enough that vehicle lunged forward and it took off.  He said something to the effect you're right, had I not done that, that vehicle would have accelerated out the garage.  And I said, yes, and we would be taking you to the hospital to get your leg re-attached at this point, too.”

The Excitement of Discovery Evaporates

The engineers made no promises to McClelland, but told him that the agency might want to buy his vehicle for research. They told McClelland to park the Prius and secure it. They would get back to him. McClelland followed their instructions and waited. Three months went by without a word.

Finally, in August, NHTSA got back in touch. They weren’t interested in buying McClelland’s Prius, after all, he recalled:

“They were not going to purchase the vehicle because they determined that the vehicle was an end-of-life issue.  In other words, it had so many miles on it and it was so worn that it wasn't pertinent to their interest in the sudden acceleration cases with Toyota,” McClelland said.

“I did ask further, I said what was the cause of the issue with the vehicle, and they said that they thought from the analysis that they did, they thought that one of the hybrid cells had failed in the hybrid battery, and that caused a low voltage condition, and because of the low voltage condition, the on-board computer was asking the car engine to accelerate to compensate for the low voltage – to charge the low voltage cell and that is what was causing the unintended acceleration, they thought. I asked if that could happen at the beginning of life?  It seemed to me like a hybrid cell could fail earlier on, and, you know, could be an issue regardless of the life of the vehicle, and they said, you know, they really hadn't examined that aspect.”

SRS Files Second Suit Against the Agency

On the heels of the release of the NHTSA-NASA report, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood made the rounds among media outlets, asserting the impossibility of an electronic cause of high-speed Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles. In a February 8, 2011 interview with the PBS News Hour, LaHood also affirmed the integrity of NHTSAs investigative process:

“When we get a complaint, we look at it. We don't just put it over here and say, we will get to it later. We take every complaint seriously. And, again, we are data-driven. And our people do look carefully at these – these complaints and study them, and make sure that they are taken seriously…” LaHood told newscaster Jeffrey Brown.

The agency’s handling of the McClelland complaint belies that. Here, two ODI engineers had witnessed an unintended acceleration in a Toyota vehicle with no mechanical cause. They videotaped these incidents and captured real-time engine control module data as they occurred. McClelland’s complaint was not added to the agency’s Vehicle Owner Questionnaire database until September, even though he reported it to the agency in early May.

“NHTSA continues to brush aside incidents and data that don’t fit their narrative” Kane said. “We have seen the agency ignore data, deliberately mischaracterize data and hide data.  This is unacceptable behavior for a ‘data-driven’ safety and public health agency.

In December 2011, SRS sued NHTSA over the release of other Toyota UA investigation documents. The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

Today’s civil action, also filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding records involving the McClelland incidents.

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