What You Need To Know About Toyota Sudden Acceleration
Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem gained national attention late last year, but has been known to independent safety experts – and, more importantly, to Toyota – for more than a decade. Toyota’s sudden unintended acceleration problems began in September 1986 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) ordered its first recall of Toyota vehicles because of speed control problems. The current generation of acceleration problems began in 2002, when Toyota notified its dealers through a Technical Service Bulletin (“TSB”) that Camry models could experience engine surging and that an electronic calibration was required to fix the problem. Later, in 2003, Toyota internally dealt with an “unwanted acceleration” incident that arose during production testing of the Toyota Sienna. Toyota did not report that incident to the national safety investigators at NHTSA for another five years and engaged in a pattern of deception and cover-up that continues today.
Toyota’s conduct has made it difficult for the public to know whether Toyota vehicles are safe. At least fifty-six people have been killed in Toyota sudden acceleration crashes and hundreds more have been seriously injured. What do you need to know about Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem?
(1) Toyota Sudden Acceleration Has Many Causes
According to four independent safety experts, including Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, Toyota does not really know what causes the sudden acceleration problem and, therefore, does not really know how to fix it.
What has Toyota said about sudden acceleration?
- First, Toyota blamed its drivers, claiming that drivers pushed the accelerator instead of the brake.
- Then Toyota blamed floor mats, claiming that gas pedals could become entrapped by the floor mat.
- Then Toyota blamed the floor pan design, claiming that gas pedals could become trapped in the floorboard.
- Then Toyota blamed “sticky” gas pedals, claiming that the gas pedals did not return to idle.
Toyota has continued to deny that sudden acceleration could be caused by a computer glitch. However, data shows that Toyota sudden acceleration problem increased dramatically after Toyota incorporated electronic throttle controls in 2002. These “drive-by-wire” systems use sensors, microprocessors and electric motors – rather than a traditional link such as a steel cable – to connect the driver’s foot to the engine. Reports of sudden acceleration complaints increased as much as 500% after Toyota introduced these electronic throttle systems. In fact, as early as 2002, Toyota warned its dealers, through a Technical Service Bulletin (“TSB”) that its Camry vehicles could experience sudden unintended engine surging and that electronic recalibration was required to fix the problem. Toyota’s Technical Service Bulletin stated the following:
“ECM Calibration Update: 1 MZ-FE Engine Surging:
Some 2002 model year Camry vehicles equipped with the 1MZ-FE engine may exhibit a surging during light throttle input at speeds between 38-42 MPH with lock-up (I/U) “ON.” The engine control module (ECM) calibration has been revised to correct this condition.”
This internal Toyota Technical Service Bulletin firmly disputes what Toyota has said publicly about electronic causes of sudden unintended acceleration.
In addition, independent research shows that sudden acceleration rates in non-recalled Toyota vehicles are just as frequent (and sometimes more frequent) as sudden acceleration rates in recalled vehicles. For example, 2002-06 model year Toyota Camrys have not been recalled, but have one of the highest rates of sudden acceleration. An independent scientific report by Quality Control Systems Corp. found that the proportion of consumer complaints related to vehicle speed control in Toyota Camry, Tacoma and Lexus ES vehicles is substantially higher in models with electronic throttle control systems (like Toyota’s “ETCS-I”) than for the same models without electronic throttle control. Even among vehicles not yet subject to any acceleration recall, speed-related complaints were reported at a higher rate for all three models with electronic throttle input.
(2) Toyota Sudden Acceleration Can Be Fixed With A Simple Solution
Regardless of the cause, Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem could have been solved with an inexpensive, simple solution that has been used by other car makers for 15 years: the “smart pedal.”
A brake override system or “smart pedal” is a simple technology that acts as a “tie-breaker” between the gas pedal and the brake pedal. If both pedals are pressed simultaneously (or if an electronic malfunction makes it appear to the computer that both are pressed simultaneously), the vehicle assumes the driver no longer wishes to accelerate, idles the engine and permits the vehicle to slow and stop.
Smart pedal systems have been used for more than a decade by car makers around the globe, including Chrysler, Nissan, Infiniti, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Toyota could have developed, tested and implemented a smart pedal system for less than one dollar ($1.00) per vehicle.
Toyota resisted smart brake technology for years. Now, after more than fifty sudden acceleration deaths, Toyota has said it will finally start utilizing this technology beginning with its 2011 model-year vehicles. One has to wonder why it took Toyota so long to finally implement this critical safety technology. Was $1.00 too much to protect Toyota drivers from this deadly problem?
(3) Toyota’s Own Testing Does Not Tell The Whole Story
The United States Congress recently held a series of hearings on Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem. Shortly before the hearings, Professor David Gilbert, an independent automotive professor, conducted a test that refuted Toyota’s claim that its electronics could not cause sudden acceleration. Toyota had claimed that “failsafe” protections built into its electronics could prevent any sudden acceleration. Professor Gilbert’s test showed Toyota’s system could, in fact, fail to prevent – or even document – sudden acceleration under certain circumstances. Toyota told Congress that it had reviewed and replicated Professor Gilbert’s findings and intended to work with Professor Gilbert to develop a solution.
Toyota told Congress that its paid consultants at Exponent had an “unlimited budget” to research the sudden acceleration problem and come up with a fix. So, did Toyota instruct Exponent to use this unlimited budget to fix the problem? Unfortunately, no. Instead, Toyota’s litigation defense lawyers ordered Exponent to try and refute Professor Gilbert’s findings. The real purpose of Exponent’s testing is unclear, but here is what we know for sure:
- Toyota’s engineering department did not order the Exponent test.
- Toyota’s design department did not order the Exponent test.
- Toyota’s electrical engineers did not order the Exponent test.
- Toyota’s safety department did not order the Exponent test.
- Toyota’s executive officers did not order the Exponent test.
- The Exponent test was not intended to make Toyota vehicles safer.
- Toyota’s litigation defense lawyers ordered the Exponent test.
- Toyota’s lawyers ordered the Exponent test to attack Professor Gilbert, not to figure out what is really causing Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem.
Unfortunately, it appears Exponent’s demonstration was merely one more example of Toyota’s well-documented history of attempted safety cover-ups.
(4) Toyota Has Tried To Cover-Up The Truth
In December 2009, the Los Angeles Times documented Toyota’s history of delaying recalls and attempting to blame its own drivers for vehicle defects rather than fix known safety problems in Toyota vehicles. Unfortunately, it appears Toyota’s pattern of denial and deception has continued during the sudden acceleration crisis.
In November 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) sharply rebuked Toyota for issuing what NHTSA described as “inaccurate and misleading” statements asserting that no defect existed in the 3.8 million vehicles Toyota initially recalled for pedal entrapment dangers. NHTSA issued a statement specifically finding that the recalled Toyota and Lexus vehicles did have an underlying design defect, which the safety agency called a “very dangerous problem.”
It turns out that Toyota knew about the sudden acceleration problem for years, but spent its time avoiding safety recalls rather than actually fixing the problem. Toyota went so far as to hire NHTSA safety investigators away from the agency and put them to work for Toyota to shut down or stall NHTSA investigations.
Internal Toyota documents showed that Toyota put profits ahead of safety in delaying or preventing safety recalls. One Toyota document even bragged that Toyota saved more than $100 million by avoiding a recall because of the sudden acceleration problem. Toyota called these savings a “win” for Toyota.
When Toyota “wins,” safety “loses,” and Toyota’s actions had deadly consequences for many. Only one month after Toyota bragged about its “win” saving more than $100 million, a family of four was killed when their dealer-loaner Lexus vehicle ran out of control. The recall Toyota avoided in its “win” could have saved their lives.
Other examples of Toyota’s lies and attempted cover-ups:
|What Toyota Said:||Toyota USA President, Jim Lentz said Toyota first learned about the sudden acceleration problem in October 2009.|
|The Truth:||Toyota knew about its sudden acceleration problem since at least 2002. Toyota knew about “sticky” pedal accelerations in Europe since August 2008 and had actually begun fixing the problem in Europe by October 2009.|
|What Toyota Said:||Toyota knows what causes sudden acceleration.|
|The Truth:||Four independent safety experts concluded that Toyota doesn’t really know what causes the sudden acceleration problem and, therefore, Toyota doesn’t really know how to fix it. Though Toyota admits there are many ways sudden acceleration can occur, its current recalls address only two sources: pedal entrapment and “sticky” throttles.|
|What Toyota Said:||Toyota stopped production of recalled vehicles voluntarily.|
|The Truth:||Safety regulators at NHTSA demanded that Toyota stop producing the defective vehicles.|
Many Toyota vehicles are equipped with an event data recorder, sometimes known as a “black box.” Safety investigators, automotive experts, government regulators and many Toyota owners would like to know what information Toyota’s black boxes have regarding sudden acceleration.
Other manufacturers, such as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, also use black box data recorders and share black box information with law enforcement, safety experts and the public. However, Toyota has refused to divulge the information held within its black boxes and has called its own data recorders “unreliable” and “experimental.” Toyota also claims there is only one laptop computer in the entire United States able to download and interpret its black box data. Toyota’s refusal to share this critical information has many wondering what the black boxes say that Toyota does not want the public to know.
(5) What To Do If Sudden Acceleration Happens To You
Until Toyota finally fixes all of the defects causing the sudden acceleration problem, it is critical for all Toyota and Lexus drivers to understand how to stop their vehicle during a sudden unintended acceleration event. Consumer Reports recommends the following steps if your vehicle suddenly accelerates:
- Do not “pump” your brakes. Pumping your brakes will cause the brakes to fail within seconds and leave you without any way to slow the vehicle.
- Put your foot on the brake hard – slam the brake pedal.
- Shift the vehicle into neutral. Because Toyota did not incorporate smart brake technology into its vehicles, the brake will not override an out-of-control throttle and the driver must disengage the transmission manually.
- The vehicle will slow and come to a stop while the engine is revving.
- Once the vehicle has stopped, turn off the engine.
- Do not turn off the engine until the vehicle has stopped or all previous steps have failed. Turning off the engine may disable the power steering and power braking in the vehicle, making it very difficult to steer or slow the vehicle.
If you have experienced sudden acceleration, you can report the incident to the safety experts at NHTSA. Anyone having a sudden acceleration event should report the incident to NHTSA to ensure that all potential causes are identified. — Brett A. Emison is an attorney with Langdon & Emison in Kansas City, Missouri.