Elizabeth James (left) told ABC that her Prius hit 90 mph in a case of sudden acceleration. (Photo courtesy ABC/Elizabeth James)
Do you remember the exploding Pinto? Or the murderous Fords that the Center for Auto Safety said popped out of "park"? Toyota is now wrestling not only with lawsuits and the legacy of multiple deaths from a similar defect that it says is about nothing more than some poorly secured or inappropriate floormats inadvertently shoving down the gas pedal.
In multiple venues, including Good Morning America this morning and World News with Charles Gibson and Nightline tonight, ABC News is reporting on an "owners' rebellion" in which hundreds of Toyota drivers are saying that their cars are running away from them, and that it has to be more than floormats that are responsible.
Brian Ross, one of several ABC TV reporters who worked on the broadcasts, told me that the network's reporting is "anecdotal evidence based on dozens of cases in which problems with the floormats doesn't cover what happened. The people we interviewed don't accept the explanations they're getting from Toyota and from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They say they've been dismissed or blown off."
The owners speculate--and it really is speculation--that the real cause of their problem is in the electronic engine control system, in the braking system, or even the result of electromagnetic interference. The latter has been the stuff of endless Internet speculation. My own report on it in the New York Times was inconclusive, and it would be far more likely in hybrid cars with high-voltage electric systems than in standard gasoline cars.
Toyota isn't really "blowing people off." It's far too smart for that. Instead, the company is sending customers letters that state, "Toyota has determined that this defect does not exist in which the driver side floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured." There's even a chart so you can make sure you have the right floormats.
The letter went out to owners of the Toyota Camry, Avalon, Prius, Tacoma, Tundra; and Lexus ES350 and IS250 and IS350. Toyota also posted NHTSA's most recent denial of a petition in a case involving Jeffrey Pepski of Plymouth, Minnesota and his 2007 Lexus ES350. Pepski's written testimony is gripping.
"Driving home from work, I experienced a sudden uncontrollable surge in acceleration causing my speed to increase from about 60 to 80+ mph," he wrote. Pepski says his brakes started smoking from the effort of trying to get the car slowed down. The tachometer soared to the redline as he finally put the car into neutral and was able to stop safely.
But NHTSA concluded, "[F]urther investigation of the issues raised by the petition is not warranted." The petition was denied.
NHTSA has investigated similar charges against Toyotas going back to 2003. According to Brian Lyons, a Toyota spokesman, "We're working on a response to the ABC story, but our position is unchanged--we haven't found a defect in anything other than floormats, and it is consistent with NHTSA investigations going back six years. The defect trend is unsecured or incompatible floormats."
Lyons said that Toyota is working on a on-vehicle remedy that is going to be something more serious than better floormat anchors. Stay tuned.
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