Toyota: No flaw found with safety electronics

Toyota: No flaw found with safety electronics

Post-recall glitches seem to be botched repairs, automaker says

Automotive News | March 8, 2010 – 12:02 pm EST

UPDATED: 3/8/10 4:18 p.m. ET

DETROIT (Reuters) — Toyota Motor Corp. today said it had found no evidence of flaws with its safety systems after reviewing an outside study that attracted notice from congressional investigators probing cases of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

The conclusions, which were announced at a news conference attended by Toyota engineers and outside experts, marked an attempt by the automaker to reassure consumers it has safety issues under control as it works to win back sales seven weeks into a recall crisis that has tarnished its reputation.

Toyota called the event to discredit what it said were mistaken conclusions being drawn from a study of its accelerator controls by David Gilbert, an auto engineering expert at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Toyota has recalled almost 8 million vehicles worldwide for mechanical problems with its accelerator assembly that can cause sticking and for the risk that floor mats could trap an accelerator and hold it open in some.

Unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been linked to at least five U.S. crash deaths since 2007. Authorities are investigating 47 other crash deaths over the past decade linked to complaints of alleged unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also said it is looking into more recent complaints from drivers who say they suffered acceleration problems even after their vehicles were fixed in the recent recall effort.

Those complaints have been seen as some as further evidence that Toyota could face a problem with vehicle electronics or software — a "ghost in the machine" — that could go beyond the mechanical fixes it has announced under its recalls.

But Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said the automaker had found post-recall accelerator complaints reflect a small number of cases where repairs at dealerships had not been performed correctly.

"We’re confident in our electronic throttle control systems," Michels said.

No real-world evidence

Gilbert had told a congressional panel in late February that he had found a way to simulate a flaw in Toyota’s accelerator controls so that the vehicle could surge forward without a fault code being generated for an onboard computer Toyota has designed as a safeguard.

But Toyota said an outside review of Gilbert’s findings by a Stanford University expert and by the engineering consulting firm Exponent had not found evidence that conditions described by Gilbert could occur in real-world driving.

Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford and director of the university’s Center for Automotive Research, said Gilbert had essentially "rewired" Toyota’s accelerator system to generate his results, which became the subject of a widely discussed ABC News report that aired last month.

"Fundamentally, you cannot rewire a circuit and expect it to behave as designed," Gerdes told reporters.

Exponent principal engineer Subodh Medhekar said the firm was able to cause a range of rival vehicles to accelerate by manipulating throttle controls without generating an error code that would be recognized by the onboard computers as a safety threat. "As engineers we could rewire anything, but that is not realistic," Medhekar said.

Kristen Tabar, who manages electronic systems engineering for Toyota’s North American operations, also said that the automaker had not found any evidence of corrosion or other flaws with its wiring systems that would suggest that the conditions described by Gilbert had occurred in its vehicles.

Mounting litigation

Toyota is facing dozens of lawsuits stemming from its recalls and both sides in that litigation have been working to line up expert witnesses, meaning that almost everyone involved in the debate has a financial stake in its outcome.

Gilbert, who could not be reached for comment on Monday, has received some funding from the Safety Research and Strategies, a safety advocacy that has in turn taken funding from trial lawyers with cases pending against Toyota.

For its part, Toyota has hired Exponent and has provided financial assistance to Stanford’s auto safety center.

Sean Kane, who heads Safety Research and Strategies, said the implications of Gilbert’s findings warranted further study and showed that the automaker was wrong to dismiss earlier consumer complaints. "Quite simply, Dr. Gilbert’s findings prove that Toyota’s assertion that its electronics are infallible is incorrect," he said.

Toyota and Exponent said they were continuing to test other explanations for unintended acceleration that would go beyond the problems it has identified.

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