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 Chronology

On May 24, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) that indicated a floor mat enrapment problem for the 2010 Lexus RX 350. According the chronology that Toyota submitted as part of its defect and non-compliance report, “NHTSA requested Toyota’s comments on these reports.”

Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.”

On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI, in a Powerpoint, cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota.

On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration. This time, it was the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat. Toyota called this action a confirmation of its “commitment to safety.”

The Numbers

ODI rested its case on nine VOQs, and four complaints submitted by Toyota as part of Recall Query10-003, in which the agency purported to examine whether the automaker had construed unintended acceleration too narrowly in two previous UA recalls. The agency also relied on an unknown number of EWR reports; they were redacted.

The agency’s choice of these particular VOQs was odd. In only one instance did a driver unambiguously report that a floor mat had trapped the accelerator pedal. Here is ODI 10325552:

“On Saturday, April 3, 2010, I was driving my 2010 Lexus RX 350 on a two-lane road in Clarion PA. I went to pass the vehicle in front of me when my accelerator got stuck. The vehicle rpm redlined and I quickly accelerated. I slammed on my brakes, and emergency brakes, and eventually put in the car in neutral, and was able to come to a stop off the roadway in about 1/2 mile. When I was stopped (vehicle was still red-lining), I was able to see the accelerator pedal was stuck in the grove on the top of my all weather OEM car mat.”

ODI counted six incidents as a floor mat entrapment, if the Lexus dealership or Toyota claimed this to be the cause, even though there was no affirmative evidence of it and even if the driver, who was a witness to the event argued vigorously that that was not the case. For example, ODI 10312842:

“We had a 2010 Lexus 350RX. In Aug 2009, I was driving home and the car accelerated up to about 60 mph. My husband was in the car with me. We were trying everything to stop the car. We finally got it stopped. It did it a second time with my husband driving the next day. We know without a doubt that it was not the floormat, which that is what Lexus blamed it on. I would not drive that car again.”

Here’s ODI 10445439:

“On Oct 5, 2011 at 7:45 am, I was travelling on a one lane road each way in rural Connecticut (35 mph zone). I decided to pass a car that was travelling 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.”

Why did the brake failure light illuminate, if the vehicle is correctly interpreting a depressed accelerator pedal (albeit by the floor mat rather than the driver’s foot)?

ODI counted an incident as a floor mat entrapment if Toyota or the Lexus dealership claimed it as such, even though that appears to be impossible if the incident occurred as the driver described it.

Here is ODI 10408509:

“TL* The contact owns a 2010 Lexus RX350. The contact stated while driving 70 mph with the cruise control engaged the vehicle suddenly accelerated up to 80 mph. While the vehicle was accelerating the brake malfunction light came on. The contact shifted the vehicle into neutral and chose the power button in order to shut the vehicle off and drove onto the emergency lane. The contact stated the brakes were also smoking although nothing was stuck underneath the accelerator pedal. The contact stated the Lexus help service center was not available at the time of the acceleration. The contact called the dealer but the service department was closed. The contact called the manufacturer regarding the sudden acceleration and they authorized that the vehicle to be towed to a dealer. The dealer stated to the contact, the accelerator pedal was stuck on the floor but the contact stated the floor mat was not stuck. The vehicle was currently undergoing test with the dealer. The failure mileage was 9,500.”

How can a floor mat entrap an accelerator pedal while the vehicle is in cruise control mode? The driver’s foot isn’t on any pedal. How could Lexus claim floor mat interference days after the event?

Here’s ODI 10404009:

“TL*The contact owns a 2010 Lexus RX350. The contact stated there was unintended acceleration while the vehicle was parked in the garage. As the vehicle was started, the rpm increased up to 70 mph. The vehicle was towed to the dealer where they inspected the vehicle and informed the contact that the accelerator pedal was stuck to the floor mat. The contact stated he does not think it was the floor mats because he checked the floor mats prior to taking the vehicle to the dealer. The dealer could not find anything else wrong with the vehicle. The manufacturer was contacted and a claim was filed. The failure mileage was 1,600.”

How does a floor mat entrap an accelerator pedal at ignition? The driver’s foot must be on the brake in order to shift out of Park. Who floors the accelerator at start-up?

The agency also included four incidents Toyota submitted as part of RQ10-003. They all happened in 2009. In this subset, one driver reported a floor mat entrapment; the rest were included because a Lexus tech noticed a “stacked” mat after the event.  (“Stacked” mats refers to one mat stacked on top of another.) 

Here’s one from June 25, 2009:

“Cust adv while driving to her father’s house on Sunday, veh was revving accelerating on its own. Cust adv she turned the key to start the veh, the engine revved full blast.”

Again, how does the floor mat entrap the pedal on ignition?

Other incidents were shaded in because the circumstances as described by the driver were “consistent” with floor mat entrapment, meaning they happened at speed, or during acceleration to merge or pass, and the brakes did not stop the vehicle.

Here’s ODI 10323760:

“TL- The contact owns a 2010 Lexus RX 350. The contact stated that while driving approximately 55 mph, the vehicle accelerated to 90 mph. The contact stated that there was smoke from the tires when he tried to apply his foot to the brake pedal. The contact stated that he was able to turn the gear shift in neutral and turn the ignition off to gain control of the vehicle.  At the time of the incident, there was only the driver and one passenger. The contact stated that the weather was not a factor. The vehicle was taken to the dealer for diagnostic and testing. The dealer has not duplicated the problem.  The approximate failure mileage was 4,000. The approximate current mileage was 4,000. RG”

No evidence at all of the causation, but the vehicle running at highway speed was apparently enough to nudge it into the “consistent with floor mat entrapment” column.

Strange Redactions

As we noted earlier, NHTSA redacted a good portion of the file under FOIA exemptions relating to privacy, business secrets and deliberative process. One factoid the agency didn’t want us to see was the complaint rate of the 2010 RX350. This was blacked out under the B5, “deliberative process” exemption, which allows a federal agency to shield “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” NHTSA interprets this to mean anything that went into its decision-making, and pours the B5 black over its documents with a very free hand. And yet, complaint and incident rates are an unremarkable element of ODI investigations and are routinely made public. What’s so secret about the complaint rate that led to this recall?

In a chart illustrating the numbers of incidents, crashes and injuries, NHTSA redacted the side devoted to ODI’s analysis under Exemption B4, which pertains to confidential business information. Since when is an ODI analysis a Toyota business secret? To be charitable, one might aver that the redacter meant to apply the “deliberative process” exemption instead, but “B4” seems a lot closer to the truth.

On June 22, Toyota presented ODI with 16 Powerpoint slides, for which the automaker requested confidentiality. The slides reportedly contained detailed design and engineering specifications and schematic drawings. Of what? We’re only talking about all-weather floor mat and pedal placement, right? These secret specs and drawings are available to anyone with eyes, a pencil and a ruler.

What’s Going on Here?

The agency has fielded more than 60 unintended acceleration complaints, classified in the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire database as a “vehicle speed control” issue, by Lexus RX350 owners, from model years 2007-2012. They have reported surges, lunges, accelerations in parking maneuvers and at highway speeds. By far, the most serious complaint resulted in a death. Here is ODI 10401384:

“In a 2010 Lexus RX 350 my grandmother was a passenger in which the vehicle was at a stop waiting for an apartment complex security gate to open.  The car suddenly accelerated to speeds above 60 mph.  The vehicle crashed through two apartment complex security gates, went airborne over a busy street and came to rest against the side of a building.  To our horror, my grandmother perished in the accident.  We are awaiting the information from the black box.  I hesitate so say too much because we are still in the decision making process of how/if to proceed regarding litigation.  Do not purchase, drive or ride in one of these vehicles. *TR”

This was not among the incidents investigated as part of the drive to recall the floor mats on the 2010 RX350.

There are many clues in the consumer narratives that these incidents are related to an electronic problem in the RX350: five drivers reported that the brake malfunction indicator light or other dashboard lights illuminated or blinked during the event. Three of those incidents were included in ODI’s floor mat entrapment dataset. Others reported multiple or intermittent events; two reported the UA in conjunction with using the cruise control; still others reported accelerations at start-up. NHTSA used one cruise control related event and a start-up incident as evidence of floor mat engagement.

After looking closely at everything NHTSA has allowed us to see about the case they made to Toyota, we can honestly say that we are no closer to understanding why NHTSA pushed for this recall. In fact, when we ran their data, it broke our Ridiculometer. Certainly, an all-weather floor mat can entrap an accelerator pedal. Two drivers out of the thirteen featured in the complaints (excluding the redacted EWR reports) reported straight-out that they saw the mat obstruct the pedal. And maybe that’s enough.

But the first such report was in August 2009. The second one was in November 2009. If this problem is so pressing, why go after this floor mat recall three years later?

And why throw in all these other complaints? Especially, the ones that make no logical sense given the scenario, or ones in which the driver was equally adamant that there was no floor mat entrapment? 

We now know that in the Toyota/NHTSA bubble of epistemic closure, a double mat is prima facie evidence of pedal entrapment, no matter what the driver – who was there at the time and saw what happened – reports.

For Toyota’s part, once they’ve characterized an incident as a floor mat entrapment – no matter how obviously it isn’t — they can’t very well argue against it. Further, it’s much cheaper to recall some more rubber all-weather floor mats than to fix whatever is really wrong with the RX350. 

What’s in it for NHTSA? Are the numbers of complaints against the RX350 ratcheting it into “troubled vehicle” territory?

Remember, this is the second mechanical interference recall for the RX350. In February 2011 Toyota announced it was recalling the 2007 Lexus RX because the center console trim panel could interfere with the accelerator pedal. The recall followed a UA event reported by Timothy Scott, the owner of a 2007 RX350. Scott’s vehicle went into unintended acceleration as he made a slow turn into the parking lot of his apartment complex. Scott checked for anything obstructing his pedal as soon as the vehicle was wrestled to a stop. He found nothing. Nonetheless, in short order, Toyota bought his vehicle back, and announced this recall. We submitted a FOIA request for the agency records related to NHTSA’s investigation and received a bunch of videos demonstrating that Toyota’s claim of trim interference was dubious, at best. (See DOT Settles Lawsuit over Toyota UA Documents, New Congressional Inquiry Raises More Questions)

Is NHTSA engaged in a public relations maneuver to appear tough on Toyota? Was it time to assess whether ODI met its recall quota? What got them going in the spring of 2012? We are left to theorize along institutional dynamics grounds, since no engineer in his or her right mind would call the totality of what we were allowed to see empirical evidence.

The Complaints Keep Coming

Toyota and NHTSA can recall every floor mat ever manufactured anywhere in the universe at any time, and it is not going to make this technical problem go away. To wit, the story of Virginia Justice’s 2011 RX350:

Justice, of Orlando, Florida was on her second Lexus – she loved that car, and said that she had not heard anything about the Toyota unintended acceleration crisis before she leased her 2011 Lexus RX350.

In fact, when her sister Linda Sartin of Charlotte, North Carolina – also the owner of a Lexus RX350, but a 2007 model – told her about a scary unintended acceleration crash she experienced in June, Justice was skeptical.

“I told her: ‘Well, Linda, you were probably distracted, maybe your foot accidentally hit the gas pedal.’ ” Justice recalled. “She just drilled into me and said: ‘I know the difference between the gas pedal and the brake and my foot was on the brake.’ ”

Sartin’s 2007 Lexus RX350 suddenly accelerated after she had pulled into a parking space and was about to put her transmission into “Park.” The vehicle shot forward, when through shrubs, across a walkway and hit a brick wall hard enough to knock loose some bricks. No one was injured – the crash caused property damage.

Two months later, Justice would have her own unintended acceleration experience that was eerily similar to her sister’s. She was easing, nose first into a parking space – a maneuver that necessitated three sharp turns and her foot on the brake.

“I was halfway into the space, and then all of a sudden the car shot forward,” she recalled. I was hitting the brake as hard as I could, and it had no effect whatsoever. I instantly I knew what was happening. I was right in the moment – ‘Oh my God, this is happening to me.’ The car went over the sidewalk and into the building.  The front went through the glass, into the lobby. The tires were stopped by the brick wall. I threw it into park. Everyone came running out, and the first thing I said was: ‘I was braking.’ There was not a scintilla of doubt in my mind. I did not hit the accelerator.”

The 2011 RX350 was equipped with “Smart Stop Technology,” Toyota’s brake override system, which should have averted this crash. Of course, it doesn’t work if your foot is already on the brake, so it’s proved pretty useless to drivers who experienced surges in parking scenarios. And, depending on how it is integrated into the electronic architecture, it may not work at all if the malfunction is electronic. Justice has given the leased Lexus back to the dealer and has refused to pay anything more on it. The thought of the Lexus being returned to service disturbs her greatly, but she won’t drive it again.

“That feeling will never leave me – of having that big machine out of my control. It was terrifying.”

Since the June 2010 Lexus RX350 recall, NHTSA has fielded two more complaints about unintended acceleration in a 2010 RX 350. Here is one from August 3, involving a driver in Farmingdale, New York:

“This vehicle started accelerating on its own. When I tried to get the vehicle to stop, the brakes would not work. Neutral would not work. Down shifting would not work. The vehicle would only increase in speed. I had 3 kids in the car. The dash board indicator lights lit up. All of them!! When I finally looked down the accelerator pedal was stuck. I grabbed it with both hands while doing over 100 mph and heard a pop! Then the vehicle slowed but still not nearly safe enough. I finally managed to down shift the car at that point. And then jammed her into park from about 30 mph. There was something seriously wrong with this car. It was not floor mats that got that pedal stuck! I saw that pedal! You need to look into this further. Someone is going to get killed! I will bet they already have. I had to trade my car in because Lexus would not even check the computer for fear they would be validating my complaint. Now I get a letter stating they are changing the accelerator pedal? There is something more to this and I think you should be looking further. That is why I am filing my complaint now. They said I was the only one. Obviously not. I spent a lot of money to get out of that car. People should not have to. Please look into this. I beg you.”

Since 2003, consumers have been begging NHTSA to do something about fixing this problem – not pretending to fix it – but actually fix it and it has had no effect whatsoever (like your Toyota brakes in a UA.) Instead, NHTSA gathers a jumble of VOQs, mischaracterizes them as floor mat interference incidents and Toyota agrees, because, hey, it’s easier. Easier for NHTSA investigators, who don’t have to fight the automaker, or institutional inertia; who don’t have to employ science or investigatory techniques. Easier for Toyota, because it’s better if the public thinks you can’t design a floor pan than to admit that your safety-critical electronic components are not very robust.  

“There’s going to be a tipping point,” predicts Justice. “But who knows when it’s going to come?”