Toyota and the Case of the Electronic Floor Mat Entrapment

As the last work week in June slouched to a close, Toyota announced another floor mat recall – this time for 154,000 model year 2010 Lexus RX350 and RX450 H vehicles. Frankly, we were slack jawed. This is the automaker’s fifth floor mat recall since 2005 and the eleventh alleging that unintended acceleration was caused by something interfering with the accelerator pedal – all weather mats, plastic trim, condensation in the pedal’s friction lever. That’s double digits, people.

NHTSA quickly claimed credit for influencing the recall:

“NHTSA approached Toyota regarding this issue late last month after the agency observed an increase in consumer complaints and other reports regarding pedal entrapment in these vehicles. When Toyota confirmed last week that it had received a significant volume of complaints on the same issue, NHTSA asked the manufacturer to conduct a recall.”

We guess that at this point, NHTSA and Toyota are tight enough that the agency can dispense with the whole investigation thing and just pick up the phone. So, the public doesn’t know what data the agency collected, and how many complaints directly to Toyota constitutes “a significant volume.”

The agency said that it had “carefully” reviewed “the available data” and “does not currently believe the issue involves additional vehicles beyond those indicated as part of the recall.” “..NHTSA anticipates the remedy proposed by Toyota will address the problem.”

Sadly, we do not share the agency’s confidence.  We have carefully reviewed the 2010 RX350 speed control complaints and we noticed something pretty interesting. Drivers were reporting that during the unintended acceleration event, the “brake failure” telltale on the dash was lit up. Check out ODI 10445439, reported to NHTSA last October:

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

Or ODI 10445422, concerning a January 25 UA:

“I went out to grab a bite to eat for my daughter and I came to a stop light at a major intersection. I received the turn arrow so I accelerated thru the turn and then punched the gas to make it thru the next light that will turn red if you don’t give it a little gas to get thru it. I make it thru the light and get in the right lane to slow down to make my turn and my brakes don’t work and my car starts accelerating on its own. I have no control of the speed so I throw the car in neutral and keep slamming the brakes while the brake malfunction light appears. I’m not sure how my car slows down and I make a right turn into a parking lot and my engine is still sounding like it is accelerating and I am in neutral. My car rolled to a stop, I shut it down and called the Lexus line. The [sic] had a towing company out within an hour and the tow truck driver told me this is at least the 10th time he has hauled this type of car for the same thing.”

Or ODI 10411637, which happened a year ago:

On 7/1/2011 at 10.45pm. I was driving my Lexus 2010 RX350 eastbound on the lie [sic] service road in Glen Cove, NY. I was travelling at 35 to 45 mph, when suddenly my “brake malfunction light” started flashing on my dashboard. I instinctively tapped the brake, and the brakes did not respond. Then the car had unintended acceleration. I then pressed on the brakes with all my might, to stop this vehicle careering off the road. With God’s grace I was able to stop the car by downshifting gears. This is the first time I have experienced this life-threatening problem. So far Lexus have discredited this experience, by claiming the mat was stuck under the accelerator and or brake. I strongly and vehemently disagree with their evaluation and analysis.

One last one, just for fun: ODI 10408509, from a June 21, 2011 failure:

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.”


How does a floor mat pedal entrapment trigger a brake malfunction indicator light?  How could the brakes fail to stop the vehicle at all? We’ve been told that brakes ALWAYS overcome the throttle.

We can surmise from these complaints involving relatively new vehicles that either Toyota still has not pinpointed the problem, or whatever is causing these intermittent faults is so embedded within the electronic architecture of its vehicles that designing it out is a major challenge that will take several years to meet.

In the meantime, Toyota can count on NHTSA to play along. Instead of opening a probe into why the brake MIL light comes on during a “floor mat entrapment” UA, NHTSA is threatening to investigate whether Toyota blew its five-day reporting deadline for defect reporting.

By now, most engineers would be getting nervous. After the fabulous, thorough, exhaustive, crème-de-la-crème, never-before-seen-in-the-history-of-investigations investigation closed without finding any electronic defects whatsoever (except for tin whiskers and afew other niggling problems that weren’t explained), NHTSA thought it had shoved the door shut against the piles of complaints that clearly weren’t floor-mat or driver-error related. But the complaints keep coming, don’t they? And the problems plague even Toyota’s newest models we counted more than 100 involving 2011 and 2012 models (including RX350s). Here’s a few:

From ODI 10440070, a Germantown, Maryland 2012 Camry owner reported on December 15:

“I entered into a parking lot behind a cluster of homes, a car was behind me and the driver indicated that I was going at less than 3-5 miles per hour. I park the car and all of the sudden the car accelerated, went over the parking bump and over a wood safety wall, over some bushes and landed 2 feet down, damaging the homes and a couple of heating units. I pressed the brake but the car kept on accelerating. This car should not be in the market.”

From ODI 10453303, involving a 2011 RX350 in a March 27 incident:

“While pulling into driveway, my wife took her foot off accelerator and car suddenly accelerated and ran into wall of house damaging front of car and causing damage to house and contents.”

From ODI 10346120 involving a 2011 Camry, reported to NHTSA July 2010, from an owner in St. Helena, California:

“While driving 2 mph entering a parking space the vehicle accelerated, she engaged her brakes and skid marks showed how hard she engaged the brakes. The vehicle jumped the curved and crashed into another parked vehicle.”

From ODI 10461475, out of Poughkeepsie NY, on an incident that happened three weeks ago, involving a 2012 RAV4:

“The contact owns a 2012 Toyota RAV-4. The contact stated that after attempting to reverse out of a parking space with the brake pedal engaged, the vehicle suddenly accelerated and crash against a park vehicle.”

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t take a poke at all the Very Important Journalists in the mainstream press. They all re-wrote the press release without raising a peep. One reporter mentioned in a casual conversation to SRS how “weird” it was that Toyota couldn’t seem to design a floor pan or a floor mat. Yes, isn’t it weird? We trace it back to 2002, the same year Toyota equipped many of its vehicles with an electronic throttle control system.

Coincidence? You decide.