In a public relations effort designed to promote the idea that Toyota has a valid solution for the Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) that has caused the wrongful deaths of at least 15 occupants of its cars and trucks, the automaker has announced a huge recall.
Toyota has said that it will reconfigure the brake pedals on 3.8 million vehicles and that it will also install a brake-to-idle override that allows the driver to stop a vehicle in an SUA incident. The cars and trucks involved include the Prius, Camry, Avalon, Tacoma, and Tundra, as well as the Lexus IS 250, IS 350, and ES 350, and they date back to the 2004 model year.
On the surface, the announcement may appear sincere, but a closer look reveals many questionable motives. First, Toyota made the announcement on Wednesday, November 25, which happened to be the day before Thanksgiving. That was a clearly calculated choice of timing, made with the knowledge that by the time normal life resumed the following Monday, the story would have faded from the news.
Beyond the timing, Toyota’s alleged solution to these incidents of SUA has major flaws. First, it says that floor mats are the only cause of these SUA incidents and the personal injuries and wrongful deaths that have resulted from them, but safety experts and auto accident attorneys have uncovered evidence that disproves that theory.
Sean Kane, President of Safety Research & Strategies, said in a release that floor mats don’t explain many of the incidents. He cited the experiences of Russell and Laura Scotty of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, who had 3 SUA events in their 2009 Camry hybrid.
In the first occurrence, the car accelerated out of control until Laura Scotti heard an audible click. At that time, the Camry had after-market all-weather floor mats with spikes that held the mats securely in place. Still, the Scotti’s removed those mats, and left the Original Equipment (OE) mats in place.
A month later the same SUA happened, and she applied both the brakes and the emergency brake and was able to stop the car by pulling to the shoulder of the highway and turning off the key. This time, the Toyota dealer claimed that the floor mat had caused the SUA, even though the mat was securely in place.
After that incident, the Scotti’s removed the carpet mats. Several weeks later, the Camry accelerated to at least 70 MPH before that audible click occurred again. They returned the car to the dealer, and once again a Toyota representative examined the car and found nothing.
What’s obvious, of course, is that the floor mat could not have caused the SUA if the floor mat wasn’t actually in the car, and that means that something within the car’s systems is creating the problem.
Their experiences were terrifying, but Russell and Laura Scotti were more fortunate than Mark Saylor and his family, who died when their Lexus crashed at more than 100 MPH near San Diego. The Scotti’s were also more fortunate than Anne Ezal, who died when the Camry that her husband was driving plunged over a cliff in Pismo Beach and landed in the Pacific.
One plausible explanation for all these Toyota SUA incidents is that the cars simply have too many electronic functions. In 2004, Steven Wolfsreid, vice president for electrical and electronics and chassis development at Mercedes Benz, was highly critical of the practice of overloading cars with “electronic functions that are useless to the customer.” Mr. Wolfsreid said that Mercedes had removed more than 600 electronic functions because they caused so many problems.
Franz Fehrenbach, chairman of the board of management at Robert Bosch GmbH, a worldwide maker of car parts and accessories, said, “There is a direct correlation between the number of electronic functions and the number of defects per vehicle.”
Another problem with Toyota’s fix, according to Mr. Kane, is that it will not apply to all of the models that have histories of SUA problems, such as the 2002 – 2006 Camry.
Toyota would like everyone to believe that floor mats are the only cause of its SUA problems, but a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) makes that explanation hard to believe. The NHTSA said its records show that 15 people suffered wrongful deaths in crashes related to SUA in Toyotas starting with the 2002 model year, compared with 11 such deaths in vehicles made by all other automakers.
Toyota’s massive fix of 3.8 million vehicles has the look of a public relations effort designed to divert attention from causes of SUA other than floor mats. And, regardless of the cause of an SUA incident, Toyota is responsible for the personal injuries and wrongful deaths that may occur.
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