Consumer Fraud

NHTSA’s sudden acceleration findings are inconclusive

Reports abound online declaring that federal officials and Toyota researchers have dismissed electronic controls as the underlying cause of dozens of sudden unintended acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles. The problem with these preliminary conclusions, however, is that they are based on data drawn from the unreliable event data recorders or “black boxes” in dozens of affected automobiles.

According to a report prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 58 cases of sudden unintended acceleration studied, 35 recorders showed that brakes were not applied, 14 cases involved partial braking, and one incident involved a case of pedal entrapment.

While Toyota promotes the conclusion that driver error played a role in most of the sudden acceleration cases, NHTSA actually hasn’t dismissed electronic throttle controls as the problem. They have only said that black box data show brakes were not applied before impact.

But the accuracy of Toyota’s black box data has been questioned by automotive experts and even Toyota itself, and NHTSA has been careful to point out that this potentially flawed data represents just one piece of the sudden acceleration puzzle. It should not, the agency says, be interpreted as “problem solved.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration director David Strickland told members of Congress in a briefing earlier this month that the agency had drawn “no conclusion” on the causes of sudden acceleration. They also said that investigations conducted by NHTSA, NASA, and the National Academy of Sciences are still active. Results of those tests are not expected for at least another year.

“NHTSA and NASA are continuing to study whether there are potential electronic or software defects in these vehicles,” the regulators told the congressmen.

Some independent researchers say that if sudden acceleration is caused by  outside electronic interference, then a “glitch” in Toyota’s electronic controls may never be found.

Toyota has recalled more than 11 million of its vehicles since last fall to address problems of quality and safety, many of which involve cars unexpectedly speeding out of control and crashing.

The automaker agreed to pay a record $16.4 million fine to NHTSA in April for failing to issue a recall of sticking pedals in accordance with U.S. law. The company also faces hundreds of lawsuits citing electronics and software problems as a potential cause of sudden acceleration, which NHTSA says has been linked to at least 90 deaths.

Toyota agreed in February to conduct tests on its electronic systems but denies that a potential problem exists.