NHTSA Pronounces and Toyota Pounces: It’s the Floor Mats, Stupid

Showing admirable restraint, Toyota waited a whole five days before trumpeting the closing of Defect Petition 09-001 as proof positive “that no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver’s floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.”

In a letter to its customers, Toyota referred to NHTSA’s “extensive technical review of the issue, including interviews with consumers who had complained of unwanted acceleration, NHTSA concluded that …the only defect trend related to vehicle speed control in the subject vehicles involved the potential for accelerator pedals to become trapped near the floor by out-of-position or inappropriate floor mat installations.”  Toyota’s press release went on to say:

“This is the sixth time in the past six years that NHTSA has undertaken such an exhaustive review of allegations of unintended acceleration on Toyota and Lexus vehicles and the sixth time the agency has found no vehicle-based cause for the unwanted acceleration allegations.

The question of unintended acceleration involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been repeatedly and thoroughly investigated by NHTSA, without any finding of defect other than the risk from an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat, said Bob Daly, TMS senior vice president.”

Some of this is actually true. The agency has not found a vehicle-based defect that is causing unwanted acceleration.  It doesn’t mean there isn’t one – it just means that the agency hasn’t found it.  By any standard, the agency investigations are far from the thorough and can be accurately described as cursory by anyone with a passing understanding of defect investigation.

Here’s NHTSA’s summary of one of those “thorough” investigations into Toyota Tacoma SUA:

“ODI reviewed the petition, assessed VOQs, interviewed persons who filed VOQs, tested the vehicle, and reviewed Toyota’s response to an agency Information Request. The complaints fell into three groups. A majority of the complaints may have involved the Tacoma’s throttle control system. Some complaints did not involve a failure of the throttle control system. For the remaining reports, although there may have been an issue with the throttle control system as one possible explanation, we have been unable to determine a cause related to throttle control or any underlying cause that gave rise to the complaint. For those vehicles where the throttle control system did not perform as the owner believes it should have, the information suggesting a possible defect related to motor vehicle safety is quite limited.

Additional investigation is unlikely to result in a finding that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists or a NHTSA order for the notification and remedy of a safety-related defect as requested by the petitioner. Therefore, in view of the need to allocate and prioritize NHTSA’s limited resources to best accomplish the agency’s safety mission, the petition is denied.”

In other words NHTSA:

  • Talked to owners who complained;
  • Drove the petitioners vehicle and didn’t experience SUA;
  • Asked Toyota what, if any, problems existed (none of course);
  • Found that the throttle control system may have had a problem but couldn’t find a cause;
  • Had limited information to work with;
  • Faced with limited resources and other more easily solvable safety issues, dropped any further investigation.

The most thorough of the government investigations appears to be the agency’s Vehicle Research & Test Center analysis of a 2007 Lexus ES350.  This investigation, cited by Toyota above as evidence of the lack of a defect, suggests otherwise.  Here’s what else the report stated:

“To comprehend the statistical significance of the probability for this event to occur, a survey was sent to a sample size of 1986 registered owners of a 2007 Lexus ES-350 requesting information regarding episodes of unintended acceleration. NHTSA received 600 responses for an overall response rate of 30.2%. Fifty-nine owners stated they experienced unintended acceleration.  Thirty-five of those responding also reported that their vehicles were equipped with rubber Lexus all-weather floor mats and several commented that the incident occurred when the accelerator had become trapped in a groove in the floor mat. Interviews with owners revealed that many had unsecured rubber floor mats in place at the time of the unintended acceleration event, which included in some cases unsecured rubber floor mats placed over existing Lexus carpeted mats.”

The report is silent on several key issues, including owners who did not comment that the accelerator pedal was trapped in the groove of an all weather floor mat.  And what of the remaining 24 who didn’t have all weather floor mats?

The agency’s 2004 “thorough” investigation of SUA in 2002-2003 Camry and Lexus ES350 vehicles also failed to find a defect. In its Closing Report, the agency said:

“ODI failed to find any evidence in the interviews conducted (113 VOQ and 36 Toyota reports, 149 total), or in the information provided in Toyota’s IR response, of instrument panel warning lamp illumination or ETC diagnostic codes detection. None of the complainants interviewed described conditions similar to failsafe mode operation. One report (10062931) was found where an ETC component replacement occurred in connection with a repair attempt related to the alleged defect, no others were found. Toyota’s warranty claim rate is low with 24 of the 43 warranty claims submitted involving diagnostic repairs (that did not result in component replacement because no fault was detected). Many warranty claims were not related to the alleged defect Toyota’s ETC parts sales rate for the subject vehicles is low also. There are no service bulletins or campaigns that relate to the alleged defect.”

Translation: Driver’s actual experiences didn’t unfold the way Toyota says they should have (hey – the little light didn’t go on!); the automaker hasn’t replaced parts under warranty (check those floor mat numbers); and it didn’t acknowledge the problem via a technical bulletin, therefore it didn’t happen.

The latest “thorough” defect petition investigation was in response to Jeffery Pepski’s experience with SUA in his 2007 Lexus.  Pepski’s vehicle was examined by a NHTSA investigator and a Toyota representative at a Lexus dealer in which they couldn’t reproduce the incident and claimed the floor mat was the cause.  The investigation then headed west to investigate the causes of tragic fatal crash that killed Mark Saylor and three family members in a 2009 Lexus ES350. In that crash, the agency blamed an improperly placed all-weather accessory floor mats that were not specified for that model.  Pepski’s vehicle was equipped with the original equipment carpet mats. Why does the investigation tie these two incidents together? Pepski says that the agency came out ready to persuade him that the floor mat was to blame, even though that didn’t square with his experience of pulling up the accelerator pedal, as well as pushing down on it.  Both NHTSA and Toyota have demonstrated how an all-weather floor mat can cause the bottom edge of the accelerator pedal to catch, but the company and agency are notably silent on how the carpeted mat causes pedal interference.

If this is all due to errant floor mats, we have some questions:

Why do Toyota/Lexus models experience SUA absent all weather floor mats?

What changed in the floor mat design in 2002, when the complaint rates significantly increase?

How can a floor mat entrap a pedal during highway driving, when the operator has been driving steadily and does not depress the accelerator?

If Toyota/Lexus vehicle have floor mats so badly designed that they have killed at least 16 individuals and injured at least 243 injuries in SUA events, why is Toyota just getting around to fixing it now?

Why is Toyota claiming that floor mats are the cause of SUA incidents in vehicles not part of the floor mat recall?  If they are causing SUA, shouldn’t they be recalled too?

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