When the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the NHTSA had found the preliminary cause of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems, I got a quick e-mail from my buddy Malcolm at Automotive Addicts. He called the breaking news, “more interesting by the minute”, and I was inclined to agree with him. Little did I know how correct Malcolm would turn out to be.
If you weren’t scoping the headlines yesterday afternoon, you may have missed the story. To sum it up, the Wall Street Journal reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had completed their initial study of unintended acceleration claims in Toyota vehicles. The NHTSA had reviewed data from dozens of recovered Event Data Recorders (EDRs), and found that in all but one case the cause was driver error. EDR data showed a wide open accelerator and no application of the brakes; in other words, the driver had simply mistaken the gas pedal for the brake. The single case to the contrary involved the California Highway Patrol officer, killed (along with three passengers) when the throttle of a loaner Lexus became entrapped on a floormat.
Case closed, right? Not exactly. First, the NHTSA won’t exonerate Toyota until further testing is completed by the agency and by NASA, presumably to test for external RF interference. Also, there’s still the legitimate issue of pedal entrapment and sticking accelerators, currently being dealt with by Toyota service departments nationwide. At the very least, though, you’d think the heat was off Toyota. You’d be wrong.
Since there’s so much disinformation flying around on this topic, here are the facts as I believe them to be true. Form your own judgements, but I’ll say this: the problem isn’t with Toyota, and I’d feel safe driving any one of their vehicles.
Fact: The NHTSA, not Toyota, conducted this study. Other news articles have incorrectly attributed the findings to Toyota, making it look like the company was attempting to shift blame from their vehicles to their customers.
Fact: The NHTSA’s findings mirror the agency’s findings about the Audi 5000 in 1989. Like Toyota, Audi was blamed for a rash of unintended acceleration accidents, later found to be driver confusion between gas and brake pedals.
Fact: The data recorders in the study were selected by the NHTSA and not supplied by Toyota. The NHTSA determined which accidents they wanted to investigate and were not influenced by the automaker.
Fact: Corroborative data from video cameras backs up the NHTSA’s findings. In every case where a Toyota vehicle was videotaped under unintended acceleration circumstances, no brake lights were illuminated, indicating driver confusion between accelerator and brake pedals.
Fact: The NHTSA hasn’t made their findings public and won’t do so until a broader study is completed, which is expected to take months.
Fact: Unintended acceleration claims to the NHTSA (which require no documentation to submit) increased 4x in February, after the news stories broke. They remained nearly as high in March, before tapering back to near normal levels in April.
I’m not defending Toyota, as they were clearly in the wrong for delaying action on the recent sticking pedal, mat entrapment, steering rod and valve spring recalls. I’d like to think the Toyota that’s emerging will build a better and safer product from these lessons learned. Having watched the Toyota hearings, I’m angered that our government representatives are less concerned with safety and more concerned about retaining domestic automaker campaign contributions. You’re deluding yourself if you think John Dingell, for example, cares more about his voters than he does about GM’s campaign money.
Six months later, we’ve yet to identify the real problem, which is driver education and retraining, especially for senior drivers. Unless we’re willing to tackle that issue, it’s just a matter of time before unintended acceleration becomes a problem for the next automaker.