Crash Data Suggest Driver Error in Toyota Accidents

This is an interesting read published by the Wall Street Journal

By MIKE RAMSEY And KATE LINEBAUGH

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said.

The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings don’t exonerate Toyota from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor.

0713DRIVER

Associated PressA recalled Toyota gas pedal is posed next to a recalled Toyota Avalon at a dealership in Palo Alto, Calif.

The findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve a sample of reports in which a driver of a Toyota vehicle said the brakes were depressed but failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.

The data recorders analyzed by NHTSA were selected by the agency, not Toyota, based on complaints the drivers had filed with the government.

The findings are consistent with a 1989 government-sponsored study that blamed similar driver mistakes for a rash of sudden-acceleration reports involving Audi 5000 sedans.

The Toyota findings, which haven’t been released by NHTSA, support Toyota’s position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren’t caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs’ attorneys have alleged. More than 100 people have sued the auto maker claiming crashes were the result of faulty electronics.

NHTSA has received more than 3,000 complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas, including some dating to early last decade, according to a report the agency compiled in March. The incidents include 75 fatal crashes involving 93 deaths.

However, NHTSA has been able to verify only one of those fatal crashes was caused by a problem with the vehicle, according to information the agency provided to the National Academy of Sciences. That accident last Aug. 28, which killed a California highway patrolman and three passengers in a Lexus, was traced to a floor mat that trapped the gas pedal in the depressed position.

Toyota has recalled more than eight million cars globally to fix floor mats and sticky accelerators.

A NHTSA spokeswoman declined to confirm the results from the data recorders. She said the agency was continuing to investigate the Toyota accidents and wouldn’t be prepared to comment fully on the probe until a broader study is completed in conjunction with NASA, which is expected to take months.

Transportation Department officials, however, have said publicly that they have yet to find any electronic problems in Toyota cars.

Daniel Smith, NHTSA’s associate administrator for enforcement, told a panel of the National Academy of Sciences last month that the agency’s sudden-acceleration probe had yet to find any car defects beyond those identified by the company: pedals entrapped by floor mats, and “sticky” accelerator pedals that are slow to return to idle.

“In spite of our investigations, we have not actually been able yet to find a defect” in electronic throttle-control systems, Mr. Smith told the scientific panel, which is looking into potential causes of sudden acceleration.

“We’re bound and determined that if it exists we’re going to find it,” he added. “But as yet, we haven’t found it.”

Toyota officials haven’t been briefed on NHTSA’s findings, but they corroborate its own tests, said Mike Michels, the chief spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales. Toyota’s downloads of event data recorders have found evidence of sticky pedals and pedal entrapment as well as driver error, which is characterized by no evidence of the brakes being depressed during an impact.

Some company officials say they are informally aware of the NHTSA results. But Toyota President Akio Toyoda has said the company won’t blame customers for its problems as part of its public-relations response.

Toyota is still trying to repair damage to its reputation caused as much by disclosures that the company hid knowledge of safety problems with its vehicles as by the reports of sudden acceleration.

NHTSA levied a $16.4 million fine against Toyota earlier this year for failing to notify the agency in a timely manner about its sticky-accelerator issue. Toyota’s handling of a rash of safety complaints involving high-profile models such as the hybrid Toyota Prius has prompted Congress to consider a far-reaching overhaul of U.S. auto-safety laws.

Last week, Toyota announced it had taken steps to improve its vehicle quality, including moving 1,000 engineers into a new group that will try to pin down problems. The Japanese auto maker also will extend development times by at least four weeks on new models to do more testing and will cut down on the use of contract engineers.Toyota showed reporters the inner workings of its labs, including how it has been testing its electronic throttle control module to find any malfunctions. The system is controlled by a main computer and has a second computer as a backup if the first fails. In either instance, failures should be noted in the car’s main computer and result in engine power being cut.

The car maker also has tested its vehicles’ responses to strong electromagnetic radiation, such as the waves generated by cellphones and radio towers, which some critics have said could be causing a malfunction. The only interference engineers have encountered after bombarding cars with electromagnetic waves is static on the car radio.

U.S. Reps. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) and Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) have been critical of Toyota’s efforts to track down alternative causes of unintended acceleration. They have said Toyota has been slow to react or evasive. Toyota has said it is doing everything in its power to respond to both Congress and customer complaints.

—Josh Mitchell contributed
to this article.


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Could Runaway Prius Have Been Faked?

Posted: Mar. 12, 2010 10:03 a.m.

Yesterday we told you about doubts Edmunds Inside Line raised about a California man who claimed his Prius had raced out of control. Today, more people are looking into the story.

Jalopnik thinks James Sikes, the man in the incident, may have had a motive: “James Sikes, the San Diego runaway Toyota Prius driver, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and now has over $700,000 in debt. According to one anonymous tipster, we’re also told he hasn’t been making payments on his Prius,” they write, adding, “it’s potential motivation for wanting to find an out — any out — on paying for the vehicle.”

Jalopnik’s questions about Sikes’ motives add to questions Inside Line raised about the story.  Inside Line pointed out that it’s relatively easy to shift the Prius into neutral, even at highway speeds.  They also found it odd that though he claimed to be doing well over 90, Sikes managed to avoid an accident on a California highway for over 20 minutes — while panicking.

The Associated Press says the runaway Prius story may be reinforcing itself. “Experts on consumer psychology say the relentless negative media attention Toyota has received since the fall makes it much more likely that drivers will mistake anything unexpected — or even a misplaced foot — for actual danger.” AP adds, “In just the first 10 weeks of this year, 272 complaints have been filed nationwide for speed control problems with the Prius, according to an Associated Press analysis of unverified complaints received by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By comparison, only 74 complaints were filed in all of last year, and just eight the year before that.”

Autoblog Green comments, “We’ll let the authorities investigate these latest cases and determine as best they can what happened there, but we also want the madness to calm down. Problems should be fixed, sure, but just because some people have problems doesn’t mean everyone does.”

The day after the Prius incident in California, according to reports, a Prius accelerated suddenly in New York. In that incident, a woman was pulling out of her driveway when she says the accelerator stuck, causing the Prius to surge forward into a stonewall. No one was hurt in the incident.

However, Richard Schmidt, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes in the New York Times that the kind of driveway scenario the woman describes is a prime example of driver error being mistaken for a mechanical problem. Shchmidt has spent much of his career investigating cases of unintended acceleration for automakers.  His work has found that reports of unintended acceleration “typically happened when the driver first got into the car and started it. After turning on the ignition, the driver would intend to press lightly on the brake pedal while shifting from park to drive (or reverse), and suddenly the car would leap forward (or backward). Drivers said that continued pressing on the brake would not stop the car; it would keep going until it crashed.”  Schmidt adds, “Drivers believed that something had gone wrong in the acceleration system, and that the brakes had failed.”

When engineers would examine the cars, they’d find nothing was wrong.  Schmidt writes, “Several researchers hypothesized how a driver, intending to apply the brake pedal to keep the car from creeping, would occasionally press the accelerator instead. Then, surprised that the car moved so much, he would try pressing harder. Of course, if his right foot was actually on the accelerator, the throttle would open and the car would move faster.”  The result? “This would then lead the driver to press the ‘brake’ harder still, and to bring about even more acceleration. Eventually, the car would be at full throttle, until it crashed. The driver’s foot would be all the way to the floor, giving him the impression that the brakes had failed.”

Of course, Schmidt’s reasoning doesn’t explain the reports of the runaway Prius in California, and it doesn’t prove that nothing was wrong with the Prius in New York.  But, driver error plus increased publicity may explain some of the spike in reports of problems with Toyota.

Check out the latest Toyota recall news and information, including how the company’s recent troubles affect our rankings. If you’re in the market for a new car, check out the U.S. News rankings of this year’s best cars as well as this month’s best car deals.

Here are some other good reads as well………

Unintended Acceleration Expert Provides His Perspective in the New York Times

In a column in Wednesday’s New York Times, Richard Schmidt, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of a well known study on unintended acceleration, provided his perspective on this issue in response to reports that the federal government may require brake override systems on new vehicles.

Approaching the issue from a historical perspective, Prof. Schmidt noted: “From the mid-1980s until 2000, thousands of incidents of sudden acceleration were reported in all makes and models of cars (and buses, tractors and golf carts). Then, as now, the incidents were relatively rare among car crashes generally, but they were nevertheless frequent and dangerous enough to upset automakers, drivers and the news media.  But when engineers examined these vehicles post-crash, they found nothing that could account for what the drivers had reported.”

To read the full column, click here

Two Professors Say Satisfied Toyota Customers Protect the Brand
Two Rice University management professors say in an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle that the media frenzy on Toyota has “focused on vivid yet highly unrepresentative events that ignore the most important constituents: Toyota’s current customers.” Vikas Mittal and Utpal Dholakia note that Toyota has a large base of unwavering loyal customers who “drive their Toyotas day in and day out and experience reliable and trouble-free performance.” That positive experience, accumulated over decades, “insulate” the brand from long-term damage. “When customers are highly satisfied and consistently so (and consistency in the key), they are prone to see the occasional performance lapse as an anomaly.” They go on to say Toyota has that “brand insulation effect” and can recover from its current difficulties. To read the full column, click on the link below:

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/6909344.html

Toyota Didn’t Pay Stanford Professor for Unintended Acceleration Analysis

In light of recent press reports, Toyota issued a statement Thursday making it clear the company didn’t compensate Stanford University professor Chris Gerdes for his analysis of unintended acceleration claims made by Southern Illinois University professor David Gilbert.

News reports have implied that Toyota’s support of Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research may have influenced Gerdes’ analysis, which challenged Gilbert’s claims. Yet, Toyota is only one of many auto manufacturers that support the center. Toyota also supports other automotive programs, including the Division of Automotive Technology at Southern Illinois University, where Gilbert teaches. Such support is common in the auto industry and does not mean that independent professors will naturally side with corporate donors.

To read the entire statement, click on: http://pressroom.toyota.com/pr/tms/toyota-update-regarding-dr-chris-155054.aspx.

2-second Prius video causes headache for ABC News

By DAVID BAUDER

NEW YORK (AP) – For the want of a better two-second picture of a tachometer, ABC News has called into question its reporting on acceleration problems with Toyota vehicles.

The network’s handling of a Feb. 22 “World News” story about potential problems with computer systems in Toyotas has created ethical questions and intensified bitter feelings the besieged automaker already had toward ABC.

ABC has admitted to a misjudgment and swapped out the brief dashboard video in its report, which continues to be available online. Its story illustrated a report by David Gilbert, a Southern Illinois University professor who suggested that a design flaw in Toyotas might leave a short-circuit that could cause sudden acceleration undetected by the car’s computer system.

Correspondent Brian Ross'”World News” report showed him driving a Toyota with Gilbert that was rigged to quickly accelerate. Even though he knew it was coming, Ross said the incident left him shaken, and he had a hard time getting the car to come to a stop.

Briefly during the drive, ABC cut to a picture of a tachometer with the needle zooming forward. The impression was that the tachometer was documenting the ride Ross was taking. Instead, that picture was taken from a separate instance where a short-circuit was induced in a parked car.

ABC said that editing was done because it was impossible to get a good picture of the tachometer while the car was moving because the camera was shaking. The camera shot was steady when it was taken in a parked car.

“The tachometer showed the same thing every time,” said ABC News spokeswoman Emily Lenzner.

Toyota spokesman John Hanson disputes that, saying tachometers react much more dramatically when short-circuits happen in a parked car than a car that is moving. Tachometers measure engine speed.

It all points to problems that are created when visual journalists try to alter reality in order to get a better picture.

“Anytime you give the audience any reason to doubt the honesty of the piece, that’s a serious problem,” said Charlotte Grimes, a Syracuse University journalism professor who specializes in ethical issues.

“Do they honestly think that a company like Toyota, with all the resources that it has, would not be looking at these things?” Grimes asked.

Toyota recognized the differences right away: the shot showed the car’s speedometer was at zero, the parking brake was on and no one was using the seat belts – while Ross wore one on the test drive, Hanson said. Online discussion of the differences began almost immediately, and the Web site Gawker.com wrote about it last week.

ABC edited the online version of its story shortly after that story appeared and wrote a note on its Web site explaining why.

“This was a misjudgment made in the editing room,” Lenzner said. “They should have left the shaky shot in. But I want to make clear that the two-second shot that was used did not change the outcome of the report in any way.”

The inserted tachometer shot still didn’t specifically illustrate Ross’ ride. It was from another ride made in order to create different camera angles. A camera person could not have captured the tachometer shot with Ross and Gilbert both in the car, Lenzner said.

Toyota’s Hanson said it was next to impossible for the short circuit detailed by Gilbert to happen in real life. The automaker, which had to recall many of its cars because of problems associated with a depressed gas pedal, held a news conference on Monday to try and refute Gilbert’s study. It depicted similar short circuits in other cars, none of which were detected by the vehicles’ computer system.

Gilbert did not return phone or e-mail messages for comment, and a woman who answered the phone at his home said he was unavailable.

Hanson said he wished Toyota could have been invited to see the simulation conducted by ABC. “Simulation” is a word that brings back tough memories for TV networks: NBC’s news president lost his job in 1993 after it was revealed that for a “Dateline NBC” study about alleged safety problems with General Motors trucks, the network rigged a truck with small explosives for a story. Lenzner said it was ridiculous to compare a two-second tachometer shot to the NBC case.

She said Toyota was given a chance to comment on the story the day it was aired.

“It was not like ABC was trying to alter the footage,” she said. “There was no staging. There was no dramatization. It was an editing mistake.”

Even before this report, relations between Toyota and ABC were on edge. More than 100 Toyota dealerships in the Southeast had agreed last month to pull advertising on local ABC affiliated because they were angry with Ross’ aggressive reporting on the automaker’s problems.

Relatively Few Toyota Complaints

RELATIVELY FEW COMPLAIN ABOUT TOYOTA

Bottom of Form

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter

2010 Toyota Corolla

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Despite a torrent of high-profile recalls that have tarnished Toyota [1]’s once stellar reputation, a study published Wednesday reveals that the automaker actually gets fewer customer complaints per car than the majority of its competitors.

Edmunds.com reviewed more than 200,000 complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) over the last
decade and found that Toyota ranked 17th among the top 20 automakers in the overall number of complaints per vehicle sold.

The results come amid a series of recalls totaling more than 8.1 million Toyotas worldwide, including 400,000 of the popular 2010 Prius [2] hybrid for problems associated with sticking brake pedals, software glitches and faulty floor mats.

The study was based on the percentage of complaints each automaker received versus the total number of vehicles they sold in the United States between 2001 and 2010.

As a result, British carmaker Land Rover [3] had the highest proportion of complaints relative to the number of cars it sold. The company received 0.6% of the total complaints in the database, while its sales amounted to only 0.1% of all new cars sold in the United States.

Meanwhile, Toyota had 9.1% of all the complaints in the database.
But the company was number 17 on the list because its sales made up 13.5% of the U.S. market.

According to the study, Toyota had fewer complaints than its American rivals. Ford [4] was number 10 on the list, while General Motors [5] came in at number 11.

The only automakers to receive fewer complaints than Toyota were Mercedes-Benz [6], Porsche [7] and the Mercedes-made Smart Car [8].

Among the other automakers that ranked high on the list were Suzuki [9] and Isuzu, which came in at numbers 2 and 3 respectively. German automaker Volkswagen [10] came in at number 4.

The complaints lodged against Toyota ranged from minor problems with lighting to more serious issues such as sudden acceleration and difficulty steering. But the study did not rate the reported incidences for severity.

Edmunds.com said that it found some unreliable reports in the database, including one complaint indicating that
99 people had died
in one vehicle as a result of an accident. It also said that about 10% of the complaints appeared to be duplicates.

Quality control: Not just Toyota’s problem

While the issues raised by Toyota’s recent recalls shouldn’t be overlooked, quality control concerns are apparent across the entire automobile industry, said Jeremy Anwyl, Edmunds.com chief executive.

“A broader view shows that consumer complaints reflect an industry issue, not just a Toyota issue,” said Anwyl. “It is no longer an option for car companies to dismiss consumer complaints, even if the event is difficult to replicate or diagnose.”

Some automakers assume that customer complaints are the result of driver error and not necessarily a reflection of design problems, said Jeannine Fallon, an Edmunds.com analyst.

“It depends on the culture of the car company,”
she said. “But it’s
clear now that Toyota has not had very many conversations with NHTSA.”

Akio Toyoda writes The Washington Post

washingtonpost.com


Toyota‘s plan to repair its public image

By Akio Toyoda
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A17

More than 70 years ago, Toyota entered the auto business based on a simple, but powerful, principle: that Toyota would build the highest-quality, safest and most reliable automobiles in the world. The company has always put the needs of our customers first and made the constant improvement of our vehicles a top priority. That is why 80 percent of all Toyotas sold in the United States over the past 20 years are still on the road today.

When consumers purchase a Toyota, they are not simply purchasing a car, truck or van. They are placing their trust in our company. The past few weeks, however, have made clear that Toyota has not lived up to the high standards we set for ourselves. More important, we have not lived up to the high standards you have come to expect from us. I am deeply disappointed by that and apologize. As the president of Toyota, I take personal responsibility. That is why I am personally leading the effort to restore trust in our word and in our products.

For much of Toyota’s history, we have ensured the quality and reliability of our vehicles by placing a device called an andon cord on every production line — and empowering any team member to halt production if there’s an assembly problem. Only when the problem is resolved does the line begin to move again.

Two weeks ago, I pulled the andon cord for our company. I ordered production of eight models in five plants across North America temporarily stopped so that we could focus on fixing our customers’ vehicles that might be affected by sticking accelerator pedals. Today, Toyota team members and dealers across North America are working around the clock to repair all recalled vehicles.

But to regain the trust of American drivers and their families, more is needed. We are taking responsibility for our mistakes, learning from them and acting immediately to address the concerns of consumers and independent government regulators.

First, I have launched a top-to-bottom review of our global operations to ensure that problems of this magnitude do not happen again and that we not only meet but exceed the high safety standards that have defined our long history. As part of this, we will establish an Automotive Center of Quality Excellence in the United States, where a team of our top engineers will focus on strengthening our quality management and quality control across North America.

Second, to ensure that our quality-control operations are in line with best industry practices, we will ask a blue-ribbon safety advisory group composed of respected outside experts in quality management to independently review our operations and make sure that we have eliminated any deficiencies in our processes. The findings of these experts will be made available to the public, as will Toyota’s responses to these findings.

Third, we fully understand that we need to more aggressively investigate complaints we hear directly from consumers and move more quickly to address any safety issues we identify. That is what we are doing by addressing customer concerns about the Prius and Lexus HS250h anti-lock brake systems.

We also are putting in place steps to do a better job within Toyota of sharing important quality and safety information across our global operations. This shortcoming contributed to the current situation. With respect to sticking accelerator pedals, we failed to connect the dots between problems in Europe and problems in the United States because the European situation related primarily to right-hand-drive vehicles.

Toyota will increase its outreach to government agencies charged with protecting the safety of motorists and passengers. I have spoken with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and given him my personal assurance that lines of communications with safety agencies and regulators will be kept open, that we will communicate more frequently and that we will be more vigilant in responding to those officials on all matters.

In recent years, much has been written about what we call “the Toyota Way” — the values and principles at the heart of our company. Chief among these is our unwavering commitment to continuous improvement: going to the source of a problem and fixing it. While problems with our cars have been rare over the years, the issues that Toyota is addressing today are by far the most serious we have ever faced.

But great companies learn from their mistakes, and we know that we have to win back the trust of our customers by adhering to the very values on which that trust was first built. The hundreds of thousands of men and women at Toyota operations worldwide — including the 172,000 team members and dealers in North America — are among the best in the auto industry. Whatever problems have occurred within our company, the strength and commitment to fix them resides within our company as well.

You have my commitment that Toyota will revitalize the simple but powerful principle that has guided us for 50 years: Toyota will build the highest-quality, safest and most reliable automobiles in the world.

The writer is president of Toyota Motor Co.

BrionStapp@interstatetoyota.com