Can Toyota Regain Its Reputation For Quality?

Government investigators who looked into sudden-acceleration complaints at Toyota say they have found no evidence of flawed electronics in 58 of the vehicles that crashed. In fact, they found just one case in which an accelerator pedal became trapped under a floor mat, and none in which a pedal became stuck or sprang back too slowly, according to a preliminary report to Congress. Can Toyota now get back its reputation for quality?

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There's new information about what may or may not be behind those cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars and trucks. The automaker has had to recall almost 9 million vehicles since last year, after thousands of drivers complained that their Toyotas suddenly sped up.

Now, preliminary findings from a U.S. government investigation have found no evidence of electronic problems with the cars, and instead point to driver error.

NPR's Anthony Brooks reports.

ANTHONY BROOKS: Owners of Toyota vehicles have filed more than 3,000 complaints of sudden acceleration - a problem that may have contributed to more than 90 fatal crashes over the last decade. Some safety experts suspected faulty electronic systems, but investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - or NHTSA - say so far, they found no evidence of that.

They studied the data recorders, the automotive black boxes, in 58 Toyota crashes in which sudden acceleration might have played a role. They found no indication of flawed electronics in any of the cars.

NHTSA would not speak on the record for this report, and NHTSA stresses these are only preliminary findings. But they do support what Toyota has been saying about its cars.

Mr. BRIAN LYONS (Spokesman, Toyota Motor Sales): We have also not found anything wrong with the electronics on any of those vehicles.

BROOKS: Brian Lyons is a spokesman for Toyota.

Mr. LYONS: What we have found is that the recall remedies that we implemented at the end of last year, and the beginning of this year, are effective.

BROOKS: Toyota found problems with sticky accelerator pedals, and with floor mats that could interfere with the pedals. But of the 58 cars examined by NHTSA, investigators found one case of an accelerator pedal becoming trapped under a floor mat, and no cases of a sticky pedal.

And the most dramatic finding was this: In 35 of the 58 accidents, investigators say the data recorders show that the drivers didn't apply the brakes, suggesting they might have been stepping on the gas pedal instead. Toyota's critics remain skeptical. Among them is Sean Kane, a safety consultant working on behalf of plaintiffs who are suing Toyota.

Mr. SEAN KANE (Safety Consultant): I think what we see is really, a real rush to judgment around what is happening, and what this really means in context of the Toyota situation.

BROOKS: Kane says he's convinced that faulty electronics are to blame, and he says the 58 cases studied by federal investigators make up too small a sample.

Mr. KANE: What this really tells us is that a small slice of crashes, that may not even be that relevant, have a black box reading that doesn't indicate that there's an electronic problem. But they're not set up to do that.

BROOKS: But David Champion, an automotive safety expert with Consumer Reports, calls the preliminary NHTSA data significant.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Senior Director, Auto Test Division, Consumer Reports): You know, there's 58 in the sample. Thirty-four showed no brake application. I think that sort of renders the data pretty convincing.

BROOKS: And the data also backed up Champion's belief that driver error probably had a lot to do with many of the crashes.

Mr. CHAMPION: It's always very difficult to blame the driver because the driver will say, no, I had my foot on the brake and the car just kept on accelerating. And in their own minds, yes, they're certain that they have their foot on the brake, but the car keeps on accelerating.

BROOKS: The federal investigation into sudden acceleration of Toyotas will continue for some time, and on a number of fronts. Among them, investigators for NASA and the National Academy of Sciences are looking into whether electromagnetic interference might have contributed to the crashes.

Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

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