NHTSA: No Evidence Prius Unintended Acceleration Linked to Known Causes

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has acknowledged what it has emphatically denied so far: Not all instances of Toyota Unintended Acceleration are linked to sticky pedals, floor mats or driver error. The UAs in a 2003 Prius witnessed by ODI engineers last May were not linked to “known causes.”

True, the agency response (see second page of report) to reporters’ questions about the Unintended Acceleration events two Office of Defects Investigations engineers witnessed, videoed and captured data from was tortured. The most interesting admission was swaddled in a lot of hot air about how wonderful and competent the agency is at ferreting out problems and protecting consumers, but it was there:

“We sent two investigators to evaluate and inspect a vehicle based on a complaint we received (complaint number 10428551) and did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases,” [emphasis ours] the agency said in a statement. “NHTSA concluded that the speed of the vehicle could easily be controlled by the brakes. In contrast to other UA complaints, the vehicle displayed ample warning lights for the driver indicating the car had encountered problems.”

To recap: Joseph H. McClelland, an electrical engineer who heads the of the Office of Electric Reliability at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, reported to NHTSA in May that his 2003 Prius had experienced multiple UA events. The agency sent out two engineers to investigate. In a sworn statement McClelland described how the engineers witnessed his Pius accelerate five times without floor mat interference, a sticking pedal or a driver error. With great excitement, they videoed it and downloaded real-time data onto their computers, showing that the engine was racing, uncommanded by the driver.

They told McClelland that they might want his vehicle for research, and in the meantime, to park it and secure it. Three months later, they got back in touch: Thanks, but no thanks, they said, your vehicle is too old and worn out. The agency did not put McClelland’s complaint in the Vehicle Owner Questionnaire database until September, at the request of Safety Research & Strategies. We FOIA’ed for the videos and data, but the agency turned us down. Yesterday we sued them in U.S. District Court, alleging that NHTSA has improperly withheld the information.

As the news was reported by SRS, The New York Times, and Rhode Island CBS and FOX affiliate WPRI, NHTSA issued a written response, so as to sidestep troublesome follow-up questions, such as:

If the UA event, witnessed, videoed and captured on computer by NHTSA wasn’t caused by “known causes” why did the engine of McClelland’s Prius “race wildly” with no mechanical interference or command from the driver?

One more, if we may:

Is NHTSA saying that it is acceptable for a vehicle to have an uncommanded acceleration as long as there are some flashing lights and the vehicle is controlled by the brake (or in this case, was able to shift into Neutral)? What about all the drivers too surprised by the complete unpredictability of their Toyota to effectively apply the brake or shift in time? Or the drivers who don’t have enough time and distance to bring the vehicle to a safe stop? What about the instances in which the throttle opening is larger, and control of the brakes much harder than it was in the McClelland vehicle?  If this sort of vehicle behavior is acceptable, what, exactly, is considered unacceptable by this taxpayer-funded, federal, safety agency?

Well, we don’t want to hog the whole imaginary press conference, but we definitely have more questions. Or better yet, release the videos and the data, and we’ll take it from there.

Finally, in its canned response, NHTSA aimed its pea-shooter at SRS, alluding to us as “some groups that are continuing to raise the specter of potential electronic issues around unintended acceleration.” That specter bit is clever – a little “ghost in the machine” echo, eh?

Actually, the group raising the issue are Toyota owners who continue to experience unintended acceleration events that are “not linked to known causes,” i.e., electronics.  The agency fielded 330 complaints for UA events in 2011. These consumers have been turned away by the automaker and the regulatory agency charged with protecting them. When they contact us we will continue to share their stories and study this complex technical issue.