A nearly year-long study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., with the help of engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Admin., finds no instances of unintended acceleration caused by faulty electronics invehicles.
Flaws discovered were those already disclosed and for which nearly 8 millionand Lexus models have been recalled in the U.S.: sticking accelerator pedals and a poor design allowing for floor mats to trap accelerator pedals.
That's not the conclusion trial lawyers representing accident victims have been waiting to hear.
“The result they came up with is completely predictable,” says Thomas J. Murray, who represents clients claiming they experienced unintended acceleration. “The long and the short of it is NHTSA has proven itself to be incompetent over 30 years” in diagnosing unintended acceleration.
Murray, who organized an event called “Toyota Truth” last year that raised the issue of electromagnetic interference, calls NHTSA and NASA testing “not nearly sufficient,” claiming internal automotive company studies “show conclusively that electromagnetic interference is the cause, overwhelmingly, of sudden accelerations.”
Responding to other critics, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood argues, “We have some of the best safety people in the world” working at the DOT, of which NHTSA is a part.
He also praises the expertise of NASA engineers and experts in the field of EMI.
Last March, NHTSA asked NASA to study unintended acceleration in Toyotas to determine whether the phenomenon could be caused by malfunctioning electronic throttle control systems, possibly caused by EMI that may not show up in event data recorder diagnostic information.
NHTSA and NASA used aAuburn Hills, MI, test facility to “bombard” vehicles, some of which were vehicles Toyota owners said experienced unintended acceleration, with electromagnetic radiation to try to simulate the problem.
Michael Kirsch, a NASA principal engineer, says NHTSA and NASA studied consumer complaints and warranty claims and were given unrestricted access to Toyota data and designs, including circuit-board layouts and 280,000 lines of software code.
The agencies also studied throttle body and electronic control modules. NASA's software team modeled code and ran it on simulators, subjected to automated code checkers.
In all instances, Toyota's safeguards against unintended acceleration worked properly, Kirsch says, noting brakes functioned correctly even at wide-open throttle. However, he does say pumping the antilock brakes resulted in a loss of vacuum boost, a situation true with all manufacturers' ABS systems.
Still, NHTSA was able to demonstrate that an '05 V-6 Camry traveling at up to 30 mph (48 km/h) “can be slowed at 0.25g deceleration with 112 lbs. (51 kg) force on the brake while the throttle is open 35 degrees, even with a depleted vacuum assisted brake power,” NASA says.
Ronald Medford, NHTSA deputy administrator, says the majority of claims in unintended acceleration with Toyotas came after the October 2009 recall of floor mats that could become tangled with accelerator pedals.
“Not surprisingly we found publicity played a major role in the volume of complaints received,” he says.
Only 3,054 of the 9,968 unintended acceleration complaints received by NHTSA from 1998-2010 involved Toyotas, Medford says, indicating the problem is “not exclusive” to one auto maker.
Officials, while careful not to blame drivers for the incidents of unintended acceleration, say the matter merits further study. NHTSA will examine pedal designs and spacing between pedals, Medford says.
NHTSA concluded an insufficient gap between the accelerator and brake pedals was the cause of unintended acceleration involving Audis in the late 1980s. Audi still is a defendant in court cases alleging unintended acceleration in cars from that era.
NHTSA Director David Strickland notes NHTSA also will study whether the way keyless-start systems function should be standardized and if electronic data recorders should be mandated.
EDRs were present on the more recent-model Toyotas recalled and are used by some other auto makers on U.S. vehicles. But EDRs do not always record the same occurrences, at the same intervals, for the same duration, even within a single manufacturer's lineup.
LaHood, a frequent critic of Toyota's initially slow response to consumer complaints, appears to be converted.
“I spent a whole day with (Toyota President Akio) Toyoda (last year),” LaHood says. “The proof is in the pudding here. What I give Toyota a great deal of credit for is they're going to invest $50 million in a safety program in Michigan. That shows they really care about safety.
“I think they've understood what we do here is serious business. We take a backseat to nobody. I think that message has gotten out there.”
Last year's recalls ensnared some of Toyota's best-selling models, including the Camry midsize sedan, and brought about a flood of negative media attention that has had a lingering effect on Toyota's ability to attract new buyers to its brands.
Still, the auto maker's sales slipped just 0.4% in the U.S. last year, and Feb. 8 it announced it was able to again topplein global sales for the third straight year.
“Toyota welcomes the findings of NASA and NHTSA regarding our electronic throttle control system with intelligence (ETCS-i), and we appreciate the thoroughness of their review,” Steve St. Angelo, chief quality officer-Toyota Motor Engineering and Mfg. North America, says in a statement.
“We believe this rigorous scientific analysis by some of America's foremost engineers should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. We hope this important study will help put to rest unsupported speculation about Toyota's ETCS-i, which is well-designed and well-tested to ensure that a real world, un-commanded acceleration of the vehicle cannot occur.”
While Toyota has maintained there are no electronic issues with its vehicles, it nevertheless paid record fines last year, including a $16.4 million penalty in December for not recalling cars and trucks with the pedal entrapment problem earlier. It doled out $16 million for not acting more promptly in 2005 to fix 4Runner SUVs with faulty steering rods.
Toyota also paid a $16.4 million fine in April levied by NHTSA for waiting five months to report sticking accelerator pedals.
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