Toyota image surges on NASA study
Investigation discovers no electronic flaws, but the lawsuits continue
The 10-month investigation into causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles turned up no electronic problems. Instead, rocket scientists called in by the Department of Transportation said floormat interference and sticky gas pedals -- both subject to recalls in 2010 -- caused incidents of runaway vehicles.
They also said that in many cases drivers mistook the accelerator for the brake.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Department study was called inconclusive by safety advocates and plaintiff attorneys who are suing Toyota over unintended acceleration in a multidistrict class action case. The attorneys contend that Toyota vehicles in unintended acceleration crashes have caused 89 deaths and 57 injuries since 2000.
But the NASA report gave Toyota a big lift in consumer esteem, said Lance Fraenkel of YouGov/ BrandIndex, a marketing firm that tracks the public perception of brands
The research firm saw swift reaction to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's announcement that Toyota vehicles "are safe to drive." In the two days after the Tuesday announcement of the NASA findings, Toyota's improvement "significantly outpaced movement seen in the aggregate auto sector," Fraenkel said.
And since Toyota didn't advertise during the Feb. 6 Super Bowl, Fraenkel said its improved perception points to the NASA report.
A year ago, Toyota's scores as measured by YouGov/BrandIndex plunged from industry highs after the unintended acceleration controversy received widespread media coverage.
Not that Toyota is gloating.
"Nobody is viewing this as a victory," said Bob Carter, Toyota Division general manager. "It's more a validation of what we've been saying all along."
Toyota has insisted that its electronic throttle control is not to blame for unintended acceleration and that last year's pedal and floormat recalls have addressed the problem.
Carter said the study results will not figure into Toyota's marketing. He said quality teams installed in the United States and Japan will remain in place, but their focus has shifted as acceleration claims have waned.
Toyota has asked several times for dismissal of the class-action lawsuit being heard in Santa Ana, Calif. U.S. District Judge James Selna denied the requests.
Initially, suspect electronics was a key point in the plaintiffs' case against Toyota. Now, lack of brake override and loss of Toyota vehicles' value have taken a larger role.
"We saw the plaintiffs change direction a few weeks ago," said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. "Now they are saying we should have had brake override, abandoning their fundamental foundation of their suit. They could see this was falling apart on them."
Despite the NASA findings, plaintiff lawyers and auto-safety advocates are pressing ahead. In a statement, lead plaintiff attorney Steve Berman said there are still too many claims that can't be explained by floormats, sticky pedals or driver error.
"The report confirms our allegations that the lack of a brake-override system is a serious defect in the cars' design," Berman said. "Had Toyota included a brake-override system, as have other manufacturers, the company could have prevented a series of well-documented accidents and fatalities."
When allegations against Toyota arose a year ago, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen, Chrysler, Ford and Nissan already had brake-override technology in at least some of their vehicles.
Toyota and General Motors subsequently announced that all their vehicles would get the technology as standard equipment.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said the NASA report was inconclusive. Just because engineers could not find an electronics problem, doesn't mean a problem does not exist, he said.
"There are portions of the report that say they're not ruling out electronic failure," Ditlow said.
"There are vehicles out there that are still having sudden acceleration problems, even after the recalls. If there were no problem, why is Toyota installing brake override now?"
Toyota has recalled 5.77 million vehicles for floormat issues, and 4.45 million vehicles for the sticky-pedal fix.
The NHTSA database contains about 6,200 complaints about Toyota "speed control" technology since 2000.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on