Consumer Fraud

Toyota probe turns from sudden acceleration to sudden stalling

Just as the nation’s fixation on Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem started to fade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it would intensify its investigations of another safety concern: sudden stalling.

Drivers of Toyota Corolla and Matrix cars have filed more than a thousand complaints with NHTSA and Toyota alleging their vehicles suddenly lost power while in motion. The problem has been reported in 2005, 2006, and 2007 model year Corollas and Matrixes.

In March, amidst the controversy surrounding Toyota’s widespread sudden acceleration defect, NHTSA received a letter from Toyota’s regulator manager Chris Santucci requesting a meeting with regulators to discuss investigating the possibility that electronic system flaws create a stall risk in about 1.2 million Corollas.

NHTSA reported that it hasn’t found a link between Toyota’s sudden acceleration defect and its electronic controls, but the agency has not ruled out the possibility that such a link exists. Many automotive and safety experts caution that an electronic flaw may never be found, especially if the defect involves the electromagnetic interference compromising the electronic throttle controls.

Although NHTSA hasn’t correlated its two Toyota investigations, it’s possible that the agency may be stepping up its probe of Corolla and Matrix electronic systems to shed more light on the sudden acceleration mystery. Whatever the case, the new investigation could lead to another round of safety recalls. Toyota has already recalled nearly 9 million cars, trucks, and SUVs this year for potential safety defects.

Toyota faces a more than 200 lawsuits over sudden acceleration incidents that have been blamed for 70 deaths and hundreds of crashes.

In one high-profile case, Minnesota resident Koua Fong Lee was sentenced in October 2007 to eight years in prison for vehicular homicide after his Camry crashed into another vehicle, killing the driver and his two young passengers. A new inspection of Lee’s car was ordered after Toyota’s sudden acceleration issues gained publicity. That inspection found a cable actuator in the cruise-control mechanism stuck in the open position. Lee was released from prison and exonerated of charges while the family of the victims says it intends to sue Toyota for damages.

Meanwhile, a New York City grand jury is actively investigating charges that Toyota covered up problems in some of it vehicles.

Toyota’s recalls are estimated to cost the company more than $2 billion. Toyota has repaired nearly half of the 5.4 million vehicles it recalled for pedal entrapment by floor mats, which the auto maker says is the root cause of the sudden unintended acceleration problems.