LOS ANGELES -- Just two days after NASA engineers cleared Toyota of electronic flaws in its throttle control system, the company's battered image among consumers had already experienced a lift.
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.