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Tuesday, 02 February 2010 17:00

Floor mats, then sticky pedals, now brakes and electronics?

Toyota, already battling an 8.1 million-unit recall on five continents, has been ordered by Japan's Ministry of Transportation to investigate a rash of consumer complaints about braking problems in its popular third-generation Prius hybrid vehicle. The world's largest carmaker has received several complaints about braking in the Prius in both Japan and North America since the end of last year, Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has logged at least 161 complaints about the brakes on the 2010 Prius. Many are from drivers who say the vehicle surged forward or temporarily lost braking after driving over a pothole or other uneven surface, and many say it is a recurring problem.

In comments on Feb 3 with reporters, the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, said the agency would “look at these complaints involving brakes and make sure they’re paying attention to it.”

After a punishing sales month in which Toyota’s sales dropped 16% and the company suspended sales on eight recalled models, the U.S. Department of Transportation is now investigating whether Toyota’s problems with unintended acceleration are actually defects in the electronics rather than those problems already identified by the company and which have led to millions of cars recalled. Toyota has recalled 8 million vehicles in the United States, Canada, Europe and China to fix problems that could trigger unintended acceleration.


House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said he would hold a hearing next month to consider "how quickly and effectively'' the car maker responded to complaints about unintended and dangerous acceleration.

"Like many consumers, I am concerned by the seriousness and scope of Toyota's recent recall announcements,'' Waxman said in a statement.

The NHTSA is trying to determine if electromagnetic interference may be causing the throttle system to malfunction, said an official of the Transportation Department, which oversees NHTSA. The Transportation Department said it was considering a civil penalty against Toyota over the handling of the recalls.

Ray LaHood said in a statement that Toyota announced the recalls after department officials flew to Japan “to remind Toyota about its legal obligations.”

“We're not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls,” LaHood said when announcing an expanded investigation.

Lawyers for drivers involved in accidents have claimed that the computers on Toyota vehicles might also play a role, but Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota's vice president in charge of quality, denied accusations that electronic malfunctions were contributing to the reports of unintended acceleration.

“We have not come across any case in which we have found a malfunction,” Sasaki said in an interview in Japan. “But if any additional reports arise, we will conduct testing using all technology at our disposal.”

At least 15 lawsuits seeking class action status have been filed against Toyota on the acceleration issue, and seven of them claim an electronic throttle system called ETCS-i is at fault instead of the pedals. Toyota is certain to face additional lawsuits from people who claim injuries from the defects or class-action claims on behalf of consumers who will claim the crisis has damaged the value of their cars, analysts say.

However extensive the losses, estimated at at least $250 M for the smaller of the two recalls, there is growing opinion that the company may not have identified the full extent of the problems, including the electronic suspicions. Some vehicles have been reported by credible witnesses to accelerate from a dead stop or from cruise control settings.

One high-profile owner of several Priuses, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said in an interview that his 2010 Prius unexpectedly accelerates to speeds of up to 97 miles per hour while in cruise control. He said he has been complaining to NHTSA and Toyota for two months.

“The reason that my case is important and urgent is that it is electronic,” Wozniak, 59, said from San Jose, CA. “I can cause it totally under cruise control without a foot touching the accelerator pedal,” Wozniak said.

““We know what the problem is,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s president of U.S. sales, said in a television interview on Feb 2. “We have the fix.” Lenz was not referring to the cruise control acceleration but rather the sticky pedal problem. Toyota has begun shipping repair parts to U.S. dealers and training them how to conduct the fix. The effort involves installing a steel reinforcement bar into the gas pedal's friction device, a mechanism that controls the pedal's return to the idle position after being pushed down. In rare cases, the pedal sticks, leaving the throttle partially open, Toyota said.

The actual repair will take about a half hour, and Toyota said it will cover all costs associated with the work. Drivers shouldn't notice any change in the feel of the pedal, the company said. Spokesman Mike Michels said a small number of newly designed pedals, built by CTS, had already been sent to Toyota's assembly plants in North America. “A week before the stop sale, the plants were already producing vehicles with the new pedals,” he said.

On Dec. 26, a 2008 Toyota Avalon — one of the cars under recall — crashed just outside of Dallas. A police officer in Southlake, TX, Roderick Page, said in an interview that “for undetermined reasons, the vehicle left the main roadway, and went through a metal pipe fence, struck a tree and the vehicle flipped and landed upside down in a pond.”

All four people in the car died. “There was no evidence that they attempted to hit the brake or slow down,” he said. “Honestly, my reaction is, ‘Wow.’ ”

Two weeks later, an investigator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration visited Southlake to inspect the car, accompanied by a Toyota engineer. Mr. Page said one factor they immediately ruled out was the floor mats, which were in the trunk.

Safety Research & Strategies, a consulting firm, said in a posting on its Web site: “Neither floor mats nor sticking accelerator pedals explain many, many incidents” of unintended acceleration.

Separate congressional committees have scheduled February hearings into the matter. LaHood, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland and Toyota Motor North America President Yoshi Inaba are expected to testify.

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