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NHTSA Sued For Hiding Evidence In Toyota Sudden Acceleration Probe

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I've written a lot about Toyota's sudden acceleration problem – dating back to 2009 and documenting how Toyota denied its sudden acceleration problem for more than 5 years before finally recalling more than 10 million vehicles after several needless injuries and deaths.

I've also written about NHTSA closing its investigation, but how NHTSA's actual reports did not support Secretary LaHood's pronouncement that "the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas."

In fact, the NHTSA and NASA reports were filled with pages like this one:

Toyota Sudden Acceleration Report Filled With Redactions

Now, the consumer safety organization, Safety Research & Strategies, has identified an electronic cause of Toyota sudden acceleration actually documented by NHTSA scientists, but not disclosed by NHTSA. Safety Research & Strategies has filed suit against the agency under open records laws to find out what NHTSA has been hiding.

Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records

The lawsuit was prompted by reports of a Toyota sudden acceleration event in a Prius owned by Joseph McClelland, who works as Director of the Office of Electric Reliability for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, DC. Mr. McClelland's Prius experienced several sudden acceleration events on May 5, 2011 in which the Prius accelerated on its own. McClelland reported the events to NHTSA who later sent out two engineers to attempt to document the sudden acceleration problem.

The NHTSA engineers arrived skeptical, reportedly telling Mr. McClelland that Toyota sudden acceleration problem had been traced to incorrect floor mat placement, stuck pedals, or operator error and so the engineers initially proceeded on that basis. However, when retracing his previous route with the NHTSA engineers in the Prius, the car had multiple SUA (sudden unintended acceleration) events in the exact same way as before.

The NHTSA engineers were able to document these SUA events with video and data recording. After returning to Mr. McClelland's garage, the engineers were able to again replicate the sudden acceleration events and not only obtained video of the event, but had diagnostic computer equipment attached to the vehicle to document electrical outputs.

McClelland said the NHTSA engineers were "excited" about their find and said capturing this information in real time could be important to putting the pieces together regarding Toyota's sudden acceleration problem. During the testing, one NHTSA engineer showed McClelland a data read out that showed gas pedal voltage at zero (meaning no throttle input from the pedal), but the computer was calling for more than twice the idle speed from the engine and increasing.

Despite this information, NHTSA did not obtain McClelland's Toyota Prius for further evaluation and failed to include its data from McClelland's Prius in NHTSA's reporting and conclusions on Toyota sudden acceleration. This document incident patently disproves Secretary LaHood's assertion that "there is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas."

Since making that statement, Secretary LaHood has been on the defensive, lashing out at safety advocates for questioning his statement:

[LaHood] singled out Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center of Auto Safety, who noted the government tested just nine vehicles. He noted that shortly after the reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA were release yesterday, Ditlow has been quoted as criticizing him.

"(Ditlow) says they were looking for a needle in a haystack. He didn't even read the report," LaHood said.

– From the Detroit News

Well, I did read the reports. I saw what the Toyota sudden acceleration reports said. I also saw what the Toyota sudden acceleration reports did not say. Others did too. Safety Research & Strategies read the acceleration reports.

If Secretary LaHood had actually read the reports, he would have seen that NASA scientists who actually wrote the report were much more guarded about what they said, noting:

"Our detailed study can't say its impossible [as LaHood said]…." "Due to system complexity… and the many possible electronic software and hardware systems interactions, it is not realistic to prove that the ETCSi cannot cause UAs…. Therefore, absence of proof that the ETCSi caused a UA does not vindicate the system."

LaHood would have also seen:

  • "Our detailed study can't say [electronic causes of sudden acceleration is] impossible…."
  • "[I]t is not realistic to prove that the ETCSi cannot cause UA [unintended acceleration]…."
  • "[A]bsence of proof that ETCSi caused UA does not vindicate the system."
  • "Vehicles that are operated with an active pedal sensor fault, either within the MIL on or off, may be susceptible to the effects of second faults, leading to possible unintended accelerations."
  • Failures that mimic valid accelerator pedal signals can be induced to produce large throttle openings.
  • "[C]ertain resistive faults can result from the presence of tin whiskers within the accelerator pedal position sensor."
  • Failure mode when combined with driver input can cause the throttle to jump 15 degrees in certain conditions and may not generate an error code to document or trace the error.

According to safety expert, Sean Kane, "NHTSA continues to brush aside incidents and data that don't fit their narrative. We have seen the agency ignore data, deliberately mischaracterize data and hide data. This is unacceptable behavior for a 'data-driven' safety and public health agency."

So, what did NHTSA really know and when did it know it. More importantly, though, is why was NHTSA keeping this a secret?

[More on Toyota]

[More on Sudden Acceleration]

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(c) Copyright 2012 Brett A. Emison

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2 Comments

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  1. Donald Jackson says:
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    I saw your article this morning and was very pleased to hear that someone is seeking the yruth. My SUA accident was in 8/17/2009 my Attorney dumped my case in 6/2010 prior to Statue of Limitation because my damages approx. $650’000 was not enough damages. Attorney fees could exceed damage award.My NHTSA ODI# 10281114 Vehicle speed control and Air Bags did not deploy. I could not find another Attorney to represent me before time ran out. I am presently considering a small claims suit to which is better than nothing. A letter I received through the NHTSA Says Toyota Solaras are not included in the recalls by Toyota that address unintended acceleration. A review of their database of 2004 and 2007 Toyota Solaras revealed insufficient evidence to open a safety defect investigation at this time. This amazes me as NHTSA 8/2005 opened a safety investigation DP05002 of Toyota Camry, Solara and Lexus Es. and 9/2006 opened DP06003. My letter from Toyota says the accident could have resulted from floor mat obstruction. Very frustrating to say the least

  2. Betty Sledge says:
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    I am also grateful that someone is seeking the truth about SUA in Toyota/Lexus models. My SUA accident occured 8/4/2011. I was parking a 2003 Lexus ES when the SUA surged the car onto a sidewalk and I turned a hard right to avoid people dining on the sidewalk.Unfortunatly, one person received compound fractures and is consulting with attorneys for a possible lawsuit. I was charged with careless/reckless with endangerment and had to get a lawyer to represent me in court each month since the wreck until the injured lady settles. I repeatedly told the police the car surged on me; it would not stop. There were visible tire marks from my brakeing in local news video. The airbags did not deploy. No one in my car was injured. The Toyota investigator checked the GAS Pedal and codes after the bodyshop had the car for 2 weeks; said nothing was wrong with the car. I am so frustrated and don’t know how to persue this. Advice? Suggestions? I got rid of the car; too terrified to drive it.