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No evidence of flawed throttle in Toyota vehicles

Toyota Motor Corp said on July 14 its investigation of nearly 2,000 cases of unintended acceleration had found no problem with its electronic throttle system, and that driver error was to blame in some cases.

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

As usual, our own Transport Canada is silent on the matter, but U.S. Government investigators have something interesting to say about complaints of sudden acceleration with Toyota vehicles: so far, they have not found evidence of a flawed electronic throttle control system in 58 of the vehicles that have crashed.

Moreover, investigators from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found just one case of an accelerator pedal trapped under a floor mat and none of a sticky or slow-to-return pedal.

Still, Toyota has recalled some nine million vehicles to fix floor mat issues and sticky pedals, so the company itself has identified problems. And NHTSA has received some 3,000 complaints surrounding this matter.

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Meanwhile, Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty told parliamentary hearings in the spring that Toyota has had just one "sustained acceleration event" in Canada and this was in a 1996 Camry without electronic throttle control; the throttle was cable-actuated. Toyota, he said, does not believe its electronic throttle systems - its drive-by-wire throttles - are defective. He also pointed out that "Toyota's braking systems are engineered to over-power the engine."

The point is, to date U.S. Government investigators have turned up nothing in hard evidence to suggest Toyota has been building and selling vehicles with problematic electronics. But the probe continues - and it continues to suggest that driver error may be at the heart of reports of sudden acceleration in Toyotas. Yes, some drivers may have mistakenly hit the gas pedal rather than the brake.

Toyota, of course, has been careful not to accuse owners of incompetent driving; there is no profit in blaming the victim. But Toyota has long argued that its electronic throttle controls are not the cause of unintended acceleration incidents.

Toyota's chief quality officer in North America, Steve St. Angelo, said last week at a Michigan conference that he was "100 per cent confident there's nothing wrong with our electronic throttle control system."

However, those acting on behalf of lawyers suing Toyota have been arguing differently. The most visible among them has been Sean Kane, a Massachusetts safety consultant funded by plaintiff lawyers. Event data recorders (EDRs) - so-called "black boxes" - on which the investigators have based their preliminary reports, are "unreliable and not scientifically validated," he recently told The New York Times, adding that many of the reported crashes happened at low speeds, often in parking lots, and would not activate the data recorders.

Kane also pointed out that NHTSA's investigation was limited to post-2007 vehicles equipped with black boxes that store pre-crash data. However, Kane's Safety Research & Strategies organization says most sudden acceleration complaints since 1999 occurred before 2007. Automotive News reports that a high proportion of these involved 2002-2006 Camry sedans and 2005-2006 Tacoma pick-up trucks, according to Kane's group.

Let's also note that U.S. investigators are looking into electromagnetic interference as a possible cause of sudden acceleration in vehicles with electronic controls. But to date there is no hard evidence to suggest this is an issue, either, though a number of engineers have said it might be possible.

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There is evidence, however, of driver error. NHTSA investigators found that in 35 of the 58 accidents, the black boxes did not indicate that the brakes had been applied, and in nine cases the brakes had been pressed "late in the crash sequence." In 14 of the vehicles analyzed, there were indications that the driver had braked. One recorder showed that both the brake and accelerator pedals had been pressed.

Whatever final conclusions come out of this and other investigations, Toyota plans to install a brake override system as standard equipment in all its vehicles. This system allows the brake to stop the vehicle even if the accelerator is pressed simultaneously.

The parking lot: Where idiocy is king Welcome to the magical land where anything goes and rules are for fools, writes Andrew Clark

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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