Toyota Motor's decision to blame its widening sudden acceleration problem on a gas-pedal defect came under attack Friday, with the pedal manufacturer denying its products were at fault.
LOS ANGELES — Toyota Motor’s decision to blame its widening sudden acceleration problem on a gas-pedal defect came under attack Friday, with the pedal manufacturer denying its products were at fault.
A review of federal vehicle-safety records also cast doubt on Toyota’s claims that sticky gas pedals were a significant factor in the growing reports of runaway vehicles. Of more than 2,000 motorist complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the past decade, 5 percent blamed a sticking gas pedal, the review found.
What’s more, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has conduced eight investigations into sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles over the past seven years, none of which identified a sticking pedal as a potential cause.
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“The way the sudden-acceleration problems are occurring in reported incidents doesn’t comport with how this sticky pedal is described,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, Mass., auto-safety consulting company. “We know this recall is a red herring.”
Blamed in 19 deaths
Sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles have been blamed for at least 19 deaths and 815 vehicle crashes since 1999.
Toyota last fall blamed the episodes on floor mats that entrapped the gas pedals, leading to a massive recall. Then Toyota said that sticking gas pedals were also causing sudden acceleration by not springing back into idle position, triggering another recall.
On Tuesday, the automaker stopped sales and production of eight models until it could remedy the problem.
Independent safety experts have been skeptical of Toyota’s explanations, saying floor mats and sticky gas pedals can’t fully explain the large number of complaints that have been mounting, covering some of the most popular models in the company’s lineup, including the Camry.
That argument was given more weight Friday, when the manufacturer of the suspect pedals insisted its products had been unfairly blamed.
CTS of Elkhart, Ind., said in a statement that it had “deep concern that there is widespread confusion and incorrect information” about its products linked to sudden acceleration.
“The problem of sudden unintended acceleration has been reported to have existed in some Lexus vehicles and Toyota vehicles going back to 1999, when CTS did not even make this product for any customer,” the company said.
Toyota began using CTS-made pedals in the 2005 model year.
On Jan. 21, Toyota told federal regulators that CTS pedals were susceptible to moisture and could stick, forcing the recall of 2.3 million cars and trucks. CTS acknowledged that a tiny number of pedals had a rare condition that could cause a slow return to idle position, but it denied this condition could cause unintended acceleration and knew of no accidents or injuries caused by the issue.
Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said the company had no comment on the CTS statement.
Another Toyota spokesman, Mike Michels, said in an e-mail that the company had identified the pedal problem as “abnormal friction in the pedal pivot mechanism” and that the automaker hoped to announce a remedy soon.
Toyota has honored CTS three times since 2005 for the quality and efficiency of its work, citing the fact that the supplier “exceeded quality expectations” and achieved “100 percent on-time delivery and for shipping accelerator pedal modules with zero defects.”
The automaker also uses pedals supplied by Denso, a Japanese company with North American headquarters in suburban Detroit, but has said those do not appear to be defective.
However, the review of federal safety records shows several instances of complaints of stuck pedals on vehicles built in Japan, which Toyota has said are not subject to the recall. For example, one complaint, filed two years ago, told of a 2007 Japanese-built Camry in Maryland with a pedal that “stuck to the floor.”
A wide group of national automotive experts said there is strong evidence that a hidden electronic problem has to account for at least some, if not most, of the large number of Toyota sudden-acceleration events.
The 19 sudden-acceleration deaths involving Toyota vehicles is more than those that have occurred in vehicles from all other automakers combined, according to figures provided by NHTSA.
It was previously reported that consumer complaints of unintended acceleration surged in the years after the automaker introduced electronic throttles, by fivefold in some cases.
The electronic-throttle system uses sensors, microprocessors and electric motors, rather than a traditional link such as a steel cable, to connect the driver’s foot to the engine.
In recent interviews, two former NHTSA administrators, Ricardo Martinez and Joan Claybrook, have said they believe that some kind of electronic problem may be causing the Toyota problems. Similar conclusions are being drawn by independent automotive-safety experts, forensic mechanics and automotive-electronics engineers, and many consumers.
At least three class-action lawsuits filed in November against Toyota blame the sudden acceleration on the cars’ electronic-throttle system.
The review examined NHTSA data for all reports from Toyota drivers of gas pedals sticking since 1999, excluding those reports that blamed floor mats for trapping the pedal. That yielded 116 complaints about the gas pedals. Overall, there were 2,152 complaints categorized as vehicle-speed control, which includes sudden acceleration.
Of the complaints about sticking pedals, only one resulted in a fatality. But that vehicle was a 2003 Camry, which contained a pedal assembly that was not manufactured by CTS. Of the 11 injuries reported to NHTSA in complaints that alleged stuck pedals, only one — a 2008 Camry Hybrid that ran into a tree in Minnesota last October — was in a vehicle included in the current recall, the review found.
NHTSA officials and Department of Transportation officials have said they exhaustively investigated Toyota’s problems and found no evidence that any electronic defect exists in the electronic- throttle system.
“The agency looks into all possible defects with these vehicles,” a NHTSA public-affairs representative said.
But some motorists don’t believe NHTSA’s and Toyota’s explanations.
Jeffrey Pepski, a financial consultant in suburban Minneapolis, said his Lexus ES350 accelerated to 80 miles per hour on a freeway in the Twin Cities last year. At one point, Pepski said, he hooked his toe under the pedal to pull it up. It was not stuck and the floor mat was not interfering with the pedal, he said. That did not solve the problem, he said.
Pepski said he described his actions to NHTSA investigators and a Toyota expert, and they didn’t believe him. In October, NHTSA closed an investigation prompted by a defect petition filed by Pepski without taking action. Pepski traded in the vehicle.
Kevin Haggerty, a New Jersey volunteer firefighter, said his 2007 Avalon accelerated out of control last month, the second time it had happened. By shifting back and forth into neutral, he was able to drive the car to a Toyota dealer, which he said was unable to pinpoint a problem.
Haggerty said dealership technicians could not find anything obstructing the pedal, but replaced the pedal, electronic components and the engine-throttle system.
He said they could not explain what specifically had caused the engine to accelerate on its own. But last week a Toyota spokesman said Haggerty’s problem did stem from the pedal.
“I don’t feel safe in the car,” Haggerty said. “I never felt comfortable that they knew what the problem was.”
He still has the vehicle.
Information from Bloomberg News is included in this report.