Toyota: A Series of Unfortunate Chapters

On a sunny June day, Kathy Ruginis, of Bristol, RI, had a low-speed Unintended Acceleration event in a 2010 Corolla, as she attempted to park. The car had already been remedied under the floor mat entrapment and sticky accelerator recalls, and presumably was as safe as a babe in its mother’s arms. Ruginis was making a slow, right hand turn to ease into the parking space; her foot was on the brake, when the vehicle surged forward and crashed into an unoccupied parked Jeep in front of it. Fortunately, only the Toyota and the Jeep were injured.

Kathy’s husband Bob, an electrical engineer with 35 years’ experience in embedded software and hardware design, wanted an explanation. And Toyota had one. After a June 24 physical inspection, a test drive and a download of the Corolla’s Event Data Recorder (which Toyota requested be performed), Toyota sent Bob and Kathy a letter, which basically said: we jiggled your pedal, we wiggled your floor mat, and we drove your vehicle for an exhaustive 16 miles. There’s nothing wrong with your car. So sorry. Goodbye.

Missing from that July 9 ding letter? Any mention of the EDR download, which showed pretty clearly that something was definitely wrong. According to the five-second pre-crash snapshot, just before the Corolla struck the Jeep, the brake was on, the accelerator pedal was untouched, but the speed and the engine RPMs doubled just before the crash. Get that? Brake on. Accelerator pedal off. Speed doubles.

Today, the Bristol Rhode Island couple filed a defect petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asking it to investigate low-speed surges in Toyota Corollas from the 2006-2011 platform. They also sent a follow-up a letter to the Independent Monitor, a position created by the March Deferred Prosecution Agreement that closed the criminal investigation into Toyota’s lies about its Unintended Acceleration problems. The Ruginises have requested that attorney David Kelley investigate whether Toyota has already begun to violate the terms of the agreement, which deferred prosecution for three years, in exchange for Toyota pleading guilty to one criminal count of wire fraud. The settlement, struck after a four-year probe, allows Toyota to merely pay its way out of the mess, as long as it stops lying to everyone about the safety of their vehicles.

Apparently, some habits are hard to quit.

In his letter to the Special Monitor, Ruginis pointed out that Toyota could not have concluded that nothing was wrong with the Corolla and that there were glaring discrepancies in what the company was saying privately to him, but publicly elsewhere. Here’s the wind-up:

  • "Toyota’s physical inspection showed that our unintended acceleration crash was not caused by floor mat entrapment or a sticking accelerator pedal; therefore Toyota’s solutions to the unintended acceleration problem by launching the sticky pedal and floor mat entrapment recalls have not been “effective and durable.”
  • Toyota has not identified the root cause of our crash; therefore the company cannot conclude that “the incident was not the result of any type of manufacturing or design defect.”
  • A vehicle that accelerates suddenly, without the driver’s input is an unsafe vehicle; therefore, in our case, Toyota did not stand behind “the safety and quality” of this vehicle.
  • In denying our claim, Toyota misled us by specifically excluding the one important piece of evidence that was unfavorable to the company’s position, but one the company has publicly proclaimed its great faith in. Toyota cherry-picked the data to claim to conclude there was no problem.”

And here’s the pitch:

“Concealing a safety issue and making misleading statements to an individual customer may not rise to the same level of chicanery as lying to a Congressional inquiry, or NHTSA investigators, or the Department of Justice. But, I have done a great deal of reading about the history of this issue, and, at its essence, what Toyota did to me is no different than what it did to thousands of other customers, and to those governmental entities over a span of over a decade – ignoring problematic data to make it look as though there is no unintended acceleration issue, making definitive statements about root causes without adequate investigation; making public promises of integrity while privately practicing deceit; and employing every means at its disposal to limit its liability of what appears to be a difficult-to-resolve technical issue, at the expense of the customer’s safety. In other words, I see that nothing has changed.”

Toyota Misery Has Plenty of Company

On June 24, as a Toyota engineer was combing the Ruginis Corolla allegedly looking for the root cause of the crash, The Safety Institute, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, released its first quarterly Vehicle Watch List on emerging – or in some cases, continuing — safety defect trends by vehicle make, model year, and alleged defect. Of the 15 vehicles on the list, Toyota Camry vehicles with speed control complaints occupied six positions – more than a third. The six model years, occupying the 7th, 8th,9th, 11th, 12th, and 14th positions on the list are, respectively, MY2007, MY2009, MY2005, MY2004, MY2008, and MY2014.

The Watch List uses publicly available data such as NHTSA consumer complaints, and manufacturer reported Early Warning Reports on deaths and injuries and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS),  and employs “peer-reviewed analytic methods to identify emerging motor vehicle safety defects that merit additional engineering and statistical review,” according to a TSI press release.

For example, recently, Boyd Martin, a mechanical engineer based in Braintree, Mass., reported two low-speed surge events in his wife’s 2011 Camry that resulted in property damage crashes. His wife is a cautious driver, Boyd said, who had only put 10,000 miles on the car. Both incidents took place in the parking lot of his company. The first occurred on July 9th; the second occurred on July 23. In both cases, Sylvia Martin was slowly maneuvering into a space, when the Camry surged forward “at full throttle,” hitting a stockade fence. After the second event, the Camry was towed to the body shop for repair. According to Sylvia Martin’s written account: “A short time later Ray called my office and told my husband that as the truck driver was taking the Camry off the flat-bed truck the driver started the engine to move the car to parking lot. The car engine raced and bolted forward. Fortunately he was able to push hard enough on the brakes to stop the car before there was further damage.”

“About an hour after he gave us that call, that’s when we started to look into it on the Internet, and began to realize that we were not alone.”

Boyd Martin says that Toyota has inspected the vehicle, but has made no conclusions yet; he is still waiting for Toyota to release the results of his EDR download. He wasn’t expecting much.

While the Corolla did not make the Watch List’s top 15, Ruginis identified plenty of similar complaints in the NHTSA data – low speed surges, many of which occurred when the driver was braking and many that caused crashes. In his defect petition to NHTSA, Ruginis pointed out that the agency’s so-called most thorough examination ever, identified low-speed surges as the most prominent UA scenario, yet one which it had never investigated. From the agency’s 2011 Toyota UA report:

Further review of the stationary and low speed incidents (combined) found that parking lot entry and exit accounted for the largest share of these incidents (40% of VOQs 64% of crashes. Many of the parking maneuver narratives reported incidents characterized by high engine power either after the driver applied the brake or immediately after shifting the transmission.”

Ruginis’s own review of NHTSA complaints by owners of 2006-2010 Toyota Corollas found 163 reports in which the driver experienced a surge at low speed or no speed; 99 drivers mentioned that the brakes were already depressed when the surge occurred or the surge occurred when the brakes were depressed; 83 incidents resulted in crashes.

The NHTSA complaint data mirrors what’s happening in the insurance subrogation field, says Dennis Lyons, of SD Lyons Automotive Forensics in Seekonk, Massachusetts. Lyons, who regularly conducts forensic inspections, says that his inspectors noticed an uptick in Toyota UA crash cases “well before it hit the front page,” immediately after the company introduced its drive-by-wire electronic throttle control system.

“The common denominator was parking or low-speed maneuvers — either pulling into the coffee shop or through the coffee shop,” he says. Lyons estimated that Toyota vehicles accounted for 36 percent of these types of cases that pass through his business; the next closest manufacturer accounted for 8 percent of those cases. “It’s my opinion that there is something definitely wrong, something abnormal about the frequency of Toyota UA issues compared to other manufacturers.”

Toyota EDR: Friend or Foe?

Normally, in all things Unintended Acceleration, the BS flows from Toyota to NHTSA, so everyone’s got their story straight. This time around, the agency and its “regulatory partner” apparently didn’t have enough time to consult.

Toyota responded to one reporter’s questions about the significance of the EDR data with:

“This data supports our conclusion that this was not a sudden unintended acceleration event but a collision that resulted from late braking, which is not unique to drivers of Toyota vehicles.”

NHTSA looked at the same data and said that because the various data points are not synchronized, the driver could have been touching the accelerator pedal in the millisecond between the one-second snapshots of data – this was most likely a case of dual pedal application.

So it’s definitely a case of late braking – so why, if the driver was braking, didn’t the vehicle speed drop? Why did it double?

Or, it’s definitely a case of dual pedal application – so why did the EDR show that nothing ever touched the accelerator pedal?

The Safety Record showed the readout to a prominent EDR expert who laughed at both explanations. Toyota has never been able to duplicate a UA during a test drive – it’s really hard to do. So, that portion of the inspection is pretty much for show, he said. As for the EDR data: “The vehicle was basically at idle and the ‘late’ braking would not have resulted in a speed surge.” He was similarly unimpressed with NHTSA’s fancy footwork. While technically correct, he allowed, “the sheer probability of that happening and not being recorded in either the current, prior or later snapshot is so remote that it really is a cop out on their part.”

Bob Ruginis said he was “flabbergasted,” when a Toyota representative told him that the EDR readout was ignored in determining that the incident was not the result of a manufacturing or design defect. “It was not logical to me,” he said. “My thoughts were: they’re not looking at it because it doesn’t show what they want it to show. If they looked at it and came up with an idea that supported them they would have put it in.” Toyota’s current explanation, Ruginis speculated, seemed to be the result of a meeting where “they sat around and tried to figure out, okay what can we say? Of course, it’s all conjecture – which is what they do.”

This the-EDR-says-whatever-we-want-it-to-say is of a piece with the history of contradictory positions the pair have taken on the value of Event Data Recorder downloads.

In February 2010, Toyota spokesman Mike Michels told The Wall Street Journal: The device is a prototype and "is still experimental," said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. "We have found anomalies in the data that are part of our development of the system. It is our position that it is not reliable for accident reconstruction."

In July 2010, George Person, a former head of NHTSA’s Recall (Mis-) Management Division, leaked to The Wall Street Journal the results of a preliminary report on Toyota EDR data, which purported to show that 60 percent of the incidents were the result of driver error. The data was rife with contradictions and inconsistencies; the sample incidents were assembled by convenience, rather than any scientific method. No seasoned crash investigator could conclude anything from these data – certainly not that Toyota electronics are exonerated.  Yet, the leak was framed as another strike against driver’s accounts of their own experiences: “The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that the throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the crash, people familiar with the findings said.”

By 2012, Toyota was publishing technical papers in SAE International, claiming:

For the three vehicle models tested, the Toyota EDR pre-crash data and other parameters were accurate when compared with the HS-CAN data or observations. Based on the testing and analysis performed for this study, the Bosch CDR readout tool for Toyota vehicles can increase the understanding of vehicle crashes and help advance safety research and investigations.

Toyota Quietly Settling Cases

In the post-Bookout verdict era, Toyota has been quietly settling death and injury claims alleging that an electronic defect caused the unintended acceleration crash. The Bookout case, our readers will recall, emanated from a September 2007 UA event that caused a fatal crash. Jean Bookout and her friend and passenger Barbara Schwarz were exiting Interstate Highway 69 in Oklahoma, when she lost throttle control of her 2005 Camry. When foot-braking would not stop her speeding sedan, she threw the parking brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark from right rear tire, and a 50-foot skid mark from the left. The Camry, however, continued speeding down the ramp and across the road at the bottom, crashing into an embankment. Schwarz died of her injuries; Bookout spent two months recovering from head and back injuries.

In October, Toyota hastily settled the case –  hours after an Oklahoma jury determined that the automaker acted with “reckless disregard,” and delivered a $3 million verdict to the plaintiffs — but before the jury could determine punitive damages. The jury was persuaded by the testimony of two plaintiff’s experts in software design and the design process, Michael Barr and Jerome Koopman, who reviewed Toyota’s software engineering process and the source code for the 2005 Toyota Camry, and testified that the system was defective and dangerous, riddled with bugs and gaps in its failsafes that led to the root cause of the crash.

These confidential settlements are reportedly buttoned up to an unusual degree, attorneys say; they can’t breathe a word of their existences.

So, the government got paid, the lawyers got paid, the victims with the most egregious cases are getting paid. The only ones left hanging are the Toyota owners stuck with an unsafe vehicle that hasn’t ruined somebody’s life – yet.

Bob Ruginis has been designing software and hardware for 35 years, starting in 1977, at Chrysler, when microprocessors were a dazzling new automotive technology. He went on to work with embedded systems in applications ranging from military to toys, and teaching other engineers how to use them. He says he’s disturbed to learn that the automotive sector doesn’t use structured programming, relying instead on haphazard programming practices and multiple patches.

Ruginis was also a loyal Toyota fan, who spent his driving career buying new Toyotas and driving them until they died. But after fewer than 62,000 miles this Toyota – and the entire company – is dead to the Ruginis family.

Bob and Kathy Ruginis are still hoping that Toyota will do the right thing and compensate them for a vehicle they are afraid to drive, but cannot afford to park, and do not want to foist on some unsuspecting future owner. The Safety Record has heard this story many times, from drivers who are anguished by this moral dilemma.

“I want to get rid of it, but I don’t want to sell it to someone who will end up having a crash and get hurt because the car is unsafe,” he says. Bob and Kathy Ruginis approached NHTSA and Kelley because, Bob says, “I feel Toyota is hiding something and I don’t want to hear about people getting hurt or killed and not having done anything about it. Having some reasoning and some evidence to show something is happening — if we hadn’t sent those letters, it would really affect us. We have consciences.”