Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Accleration Cover-Up

The splash that retired NHTSA recall division chief George Person made when he told The Wall Street Journal that the agency was sitting on a report that would show driver error to be the cause of Toyota SUA events has been submerged by a new wave of reality, as attorneys heading the Multi-District Litigation (MDL) charged in a class-action complaint that Toyota knew since 2003 that it had an SUA problem it could not explain and its own dealers witnessed some events.

The MDL, filed this week on behalf of Toyota and Lexus owners alleging that the automaker’s SUA defect has caused their vehicles to lose value, shows that Toyota has known, at least since May 2003 that its Electronic Throttle Control had a “dangerous” unintended acceleration problem with an unknown cause. That civil action, and a second one claiming damages for Toyota and Lexus owners who were injured or killed in crashes alleged to have been caused by SUA, cite six incidents which occurred between 2003 and 2010, witnessed by Toyota technicians, dealers and others. The e-mails also show that Toyota spent considerable energy trying to divert NHTSA from looking too closely at the issue. Here are some highlights from the class-action complaint:

“On May 5, 2003, in a ‘Field Technical Report’ Toyota acknowledged the fact that “[s]udden acceleration against our intention,’ was an ‘extremely serious problem for customers.’ The technician reported a UA incident and stated: ‘We found miss-synchronism between engine speeds and throttle position movement.” The probable cause was unknown, but ‘(e)ven after replacement of those parts, this problem remains.’ The author requested immediate action due to the ‘extremely dangerous problem’ and continued: ‘[W]e are also much afraid of frequency of this problem in near future.’

“In May 2004, a 26 Forensic Technologist and MSME examined a vehicle in New Jersey that had experienced a UA event. The report was forwarded to Toyota on January 13, 2005. It concluded that the vehicle’s ETCS was not operating correctly. This report was not provided to NHTSA.

“In a February 27, 2007 email sent by Michiteru Kato to Christopher Santucci, Mr. Kato decided against sending his most knowledgeable ECU (Engine Control Unit) engineer to an ECU demonstration being conducted for NHTSA, in order to avoid questions regarding ECU failures: ‘…I thought that 3 guys from TMS is too many (two at most), and if the engineer who knows the failures well attends the meeting, NHTSA will ask a bunch of questions about the ECD. (I want to avoid such situation).’

In a Field Technical Report dated December 12, 2008, a technician stated: ‘After traveling 20-30 feet the vehicle exhibited a slight hesitation then began to accelerate on its own. Engine speed was estimated to have gone from 1500 rpm to 5500 rpm at the time of the occurrence…Probable Cause =Unknown.’

The examples cited in the MDL complaint are similar to many of those reported to Safety Research & Strategies by Toyota owners. (see Toyota Real Stories)

George Person, erstwhile chief of the Recall Management Division, who just retired after 27 years at the agency, has no reservations about the causes of Toyota SUA. He opined that DOT officials had withheld a report, showing that EDR data in 23 crashes showed a wide-open throttle and no evidence of braking before the crash, out of embarrassment.

“It has become very political. There is a lot of anger towards Toyota,” Person said in a subsequent WSJ story published on July 30. Transportation officials “are hoping against hope that they find something that points back to a flaw in Toyota vehicles.”

“The agency has for too long ignored what I believe is the root cause of these unintended acceleration cases,” he told the WSJ, as his head disappeared into the hole George was digging. “It’s driver error. It’s pedal misapplication and that’s what this data shows.”

Person lobbed what looked like a boulder three weeks ago, when the WSJ reported that NHTSA had Event Data Recorder (EDR – aka, “Black Box”) from “several dozen” crashes and that all of them showed accelerator application with no braking at the time of impact:

“The Toyota findings appear to support Toyota’s position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren’t caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs’ attorneys have alleged.”

The front-page story was picked up, with some outlets blaring headlines of the “Toyota-is-Exonerated” variety. The pushback was swift: NHTSA said that it was in no way close to drawing any conclusions about what has caused tens of thousands of Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration complaints. (The agency is currently examining Toyotas with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and is awaiting a report it commissioned a National Academies of Science panel to write about SUA.)  And, after a spate of such stories, USA Today captured the entire charming episode under the headline: “Feds, Toyota, deny they said what nobody said they said in acceleration fracas.”

First – while we are deeply disappointed that this bears repeating, we repeat – Toyota EDR data alone is unreliable, by the automaker’s own admission. Second, there are so many details of these 23 crashes still not public. How were these crashes selected? Are these single-vehicle, run-off-the-road fatal crashes with no witnesses that someone has surmised could have been SUA related?  If they are how relevant are these crashes to the SUA problem? (See No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota) Most of the Toyota SUA events have not triggered the EDRs. They are low-speed events that may have little or nothing to do with the higher-speed crashes.  Further, those much more frequent, lower-speed events have had many witnesses.

The e-mails submitted as exhibits in the MDL make Person’s boulder look like a pebble.