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)

IIHS Asks NHTSA for Stronger Underride Rule

This month, the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety reignited efforts to address the underride problem and petitioned the federal government to “require stronger underride guards that will remain in place during a crash and to mandate guards for more large trucks and trailers.”

The Institute based its latest effort on a study using the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, a federal database of roughly 1,000 real-world crashes in 2001-03.  The organization examined crash patterns leading to rear underride of heavy trucks and semi-trailers with and without guards and found that underride was a common outcome of the 115 crashes involving a passenger vehicle striking the back of a heavy truck or semi-trailer. Only 22 percent of the crashes didn’t involve underride or had only negligible underride, which they indicated was consistent with prior studies.  The study noted that “In 23 of the 28 cases in which someone in the passenger vehicle died, there was severe or catastrophic underride damage, meaning the entire front end or more of the vehicle slid beneath the truck.”

Fuel Spit-back Continues to Plague Chrysler Vehicles, Owners on the Hook

Fuel “spit-back” through the filler neck has been a longstanding problem in several Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models, caused by the Inlet Check Valve (ICV) mounted in the fuel tank. Despite some limited recalls and at least one extended lifetime warranty, this defect, which first surfaced in 2001, continues to plague a number of models. Tens of thousands of vehicles are outside of any campaign, forcing owners to pay for a repair that requires replacement of the entire tank assembly.

Numerous Dodge Durango owners have complained to NHTSA and Chrysler. Others have commiserated about “spit back” on Internet blogs and enthusiast websites, and posted dramatic video footage showing geysers of gasoline or significant fuel dumps into the concrete around the pump.

The video below was captured by David Trebacz, the owner of a 2007 Dodge Durango.

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:

It’s Time to Make Seat Heaters Safer

Today, Safety Research & Strategies called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the industry to correct a longstanding safety problem: seat heaters that injure disabled drivers and passengers. With no government or industry-wide standards, manufacturers have installed a variety of seat heater systems – some that  reach temperatures significantly above human tolerances or have no automatic shut-off mechanism – or both. While most drivers know when to turn a hot seat off, occupants with lower body sensory deficits don’t feel the burn.

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.

Roll Me Over – One More Time

The Society of Automotive Engineers resumed its ongoing boxing match over injury causation in rollovers at last week’s SAE Government Industry meeting. In Malibu’s corner was Wayne State and University of Michigan’s Transportation Safety Institute, presenting research supporting the theory of occupant diving as the mechanism of head and neck injury in rollovers – regardless of roof crush.

(For those of you who haven’t followed this 25-year-old scrum, Malibu refers to two sets of experimental rollover tests General Motors conducted in 1983 and 1987 on Chevrolet Malibus. Known as Malibu I and II, the tests were conducted to validate the theory that occupants don’t suffer head and neck injuries because the roof collapses on them, but because the force of the crash propels them into the roof. Over the years, automakers have clung to the Malibu results, despite crash data showing that the number of deaths and injuries in rollover accidents has risen disproportionately, with more than quarter of the accidents involving a serious roof intrusion.)

On the other side was NHTSA, arguing that roof strength is related to injury. It’s refreshing – if ironic – to see NHTSA champion a relationship between intrusion and injury. The agency is a late convert to this view; after years as an adherent of the Holy Gospel of Malibu.

Meanwhile, over at the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting – also last week – research from less likely suspects supported the need for stronger roofs.

Bigger Bags, Better Glass

Forty years after automakers fought off regulations that would have actually tested rollover occupant protection, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published a final ejection mitigation rule, which favors the installation of bigger and more longer-deploying  side airbags and takes a half-step forward on improving side glazing.

The rule establishes a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 226 Ejection Mitigation. FMVSS 226 applies to the side windows next to the first three rows of seats in motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less. The performance-based standard would institute a compliance test in which an impactor would be propelled from inside a test vehicle toward the windows. The ejection mitigation system would have to prevent the impactor – based on the mass imposed by a 50th percentile male’s upper torso on the window opening – from moving more than a specified distance beyond the plane of the window.  Each side window would be impacted at up to four locations around its perimeter at two time intervals following deployment, to ensure that the airbags remain deployed for the beginning and end stages of a rollover.

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.)

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