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Toyota and Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Since October 2009, Toyota Motor Corp. has recalled more than 8 million vehicles in their fleet to address problems of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA), or incidents involving a vehicle’s engine suddenly surging out of control. Thousands of reports of “runaway Toyotas” have been submitted to federal safety regulators over the past decade, but Toyota has repeatedly blamed the incidents on floor mat interference, sticky accelerator pedals, and even driver error, insisting that there is no design flaw in the company’s electronic throttle-control system.

From 2005 to 2009, the Toyota floor mat recall affected millions of Toyota vehicles, addressing problems with driver’s side floor mats that the company believed could become lodged under accelerator pedals, causing vehicles to surge out of control. Numerous Toyota floor mat recall lawsuits followed, with some victims stating that their vehicles were idling when the incident occurred or that the floor mats were not even in their cars when they experienced the sudden acceleration surges. Some victims reported surges in acceleration when their vehicles were locked in cruise control on a highway.

The company has refused to attribute SUA incidents to their electronics, though many experts believe the electronic throttle control systems may be to blame for the sudden surges in speed that can occur even while the driver presses the brake pedal. Mounting evidence in the investigations into Toyota safety standards suggest that the problem is larger than Toyota has been willing to admit.

Statistics on Toyota SUA-Related Incidents

Beginning in 2003, the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) conducted eight separate investigations into Camry, Tacoma, Sienna, and Lexus models and their ability to cause unintended acceleration, after receiving numerous complaints of SUA from consumers. Investigations were brief and cursory, with no cause determined in five cases and issues with floor mats said to be the cause in the other three cases.

Consumers reported that Toyota and Lexus vehicles would suddenly surge forward into traffic despite attempts to push the brake pedal, and that the malfunctioning vehicles could only be controlled by putting the car into neutral, using the emergency break, turning the car off, or restarting the engine entirely.

The Massachusetts research firm Safety & Strategies, Inc. estimates that there have been at least 2,262 incidents of SUA reported to the NHTSA in Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 1999, with 815 crashes, 341 injuries, and at least 34 deaths potentially related to the incidents. Though Toyota has issued extensive recalls to address consumer complaints, about half of the more than 2,000 incidents involved vehicles with model years that were not subject to recall, such as Camry models made prior to 2007.

Toyota Blames Floor Mats in Early Recalls

To address problems of SUA, Toyota has issued six separate recalls concerning floor mat interference and sticky accelerator pedals since 2005. Beginning in December 2005, Toyota acknowledged problems with accelerator pedals becoming stuck in the wide open position in Lexus IS 250 models, due to unsecured or incompatible driver’s side floor mats. The company recalled more than 3,500 Lexus IS 250 models in December 2005, and it wasn’t until September 2007 that Toyota issued a recall of 55,000 additional all-weather floor mats in selected Lexus ES 350 and Camry models. A subsequent January 2009 recall of more than 26,000 Sienna models addressed a missing safety clip on driver’s side floor mats. The largest recall came in October 2009 when Toyota recalled 3.8 million vehicles, citing floor mat entrapment issues. An expansion was issued in January 2010, with 1 million additional vehicles affected by the recall.

Toyota proposed to fix floor mat entrapment issues by modifying the accelerator pedal, replacing all-weather floor mats with newly redesigned mats, altering the shape of the floor under the pedal, or replacing the accelerator pedals beginning in April 2010, when the new parts would be shipped to Toyota service centers worldwide.

Additional Recall for Sticky Accelerator Pedals

In January 2010, Toyota announced a recall of 2.3 million vehicles concerning a problem with sticky accelerator pedals in the Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Highlander, Matrix, RAV4, Sequoia, and Tundra, with no relation to the previous recalls’ floor mat issue. A 1-million-vehicle expansion was issued a week later to include the Toyota Venza and the Pontiac Vibe.

Are Toyota’s Electronic System Problems to Blame?

With Toyota’s February 2010 announcement of an electronic system upgrade for a new brake override system on certain recalled Toyota vehicles, investigators and regulators wonder if Toyota will, in fact, acknowledge electronic system problems as a cause of the SUA incidents. The brake override system feature ensures that the engine speed is reduced if the accelerator and the brake pedal are depressed simultaneously.

According to Dave Gilbert, professor of the automotive technology department at Southern Illinois University, there is a flaw in Toyota’s design of the electronic acceleration system that prevents the vehicle’s onboard computer system from detecting and stopping short circuits. Professor Gilbert believes that this defect can result in sudden speed surges that are left uncorrected by the computer system. With his own investigations, Professor Gilbert detected the electronic problem in four separate vehicles, including the Tundra, Avalon, Matrix, and Lexus models. Toyota denies previous knowledge of the problem.

Additional Facts Uncovered by the Toyota Investigation

Recent investigations into Toyota by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have revealed internal documents hailing the company’s success at limiting safety recalls in the past, citing $100 million in savings from negotiating a limited recall for the Camry and Lexus ES vehicles involved in 2007 floor mat recalls.