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Toyota Recall: Possible Lives at Risk and Real Issue Still in Question

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Detroit, MNLinda Hardy of Dallas took her 2008 Toyota Avalon to her dealership numerous times to complain of sudden and unexplained acceleration. "Please fix my car," she told them, recalling the events to Brian Ross in a report aired this morning on ABC's Good Morning America (GMA). Her car had raced out of control on three separate occasions between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.

She was told there was no problem.

That same car—one of the models included in the Toyota recall—wound up in a lake with four people trapped inside. The driver, Linda's husband, was killed, along with three other people. A tearful Linda Hardy pleads with Toyota to fix the problems "so no one else will die…"

"It's Not the Pedal: It's the Electronics"

Toyota says it knew of a problem in October. Others claim Toyota knew of a problem years before that, but was not forthcoming. The very model of car that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) tested in 2008, the Lexus ES 350, was the same model involved in a fiery crash in California this past August that also took four lives.

And while Toyota's direction in the last several weeks has been to focus on sticking accelerator pedals that may or may not be impacted by improperly-fitted or installed floor mats, there are new revelations that what the NHTSA tested for originally may indeed lie at the heart of the matter.

Toyota executives have been saying as recently as the beginning of the week that they were confident the problem was not electronic.

But now Congress has directed the NHTSA to launch a renewed investigation into the electronic acceleration and control systems of Toyota cars. Experts in the arena of electromagnetic interference suspect the problem is not a mechanical one that can be repaired with a mechanical fix. The problem, they say is either with the software or electromagnetic interference.

Keith Armstrong, an expert in electromagnetic interference recruited by a new federal safety probe to examine the Toyota problem, told ABC News in an on-camera interview this week, "It's the electronics. It's not the pedal."

And even in the face of a massive recall involving nine million vehicles worldwide, for which Toyota has claimed the fix to be mechanical in nature, Congress has ordered a renewed probe into the electronics.

This all leaves consumers in a quandary. It will take time, anyway to repair nine million cars to fix a problem that may not be a problem. If this isn't the problem, then what is? And how long will it take to determine the real source of the sudden acceleration?

What do consumers do in the meantime? Park their Toyota cars and go rent a Ford or a Honda? How many more people will die while all this gets sorted out?

The Old Days

It used to be—to the chagrin of domestic automakers—that Japanese brands like Toyota had cornered the market on trust, quality and reliability.

Now, more troubling revelations are coming out. Toyota sales are down 15 percent. Compare that to Ford, where sales are up 25 percent, their best showing in 15 years. The products are fabulous, according to the hardware handed out at the most recent Detroit Auto Show. And consumers note that Ford has its financial house in order, having avoided the fate of GM and Chrysler in their financial curtsies to the feds.

Toyota publicly stated this week that it is working to solve the problem of rapid acceleration and sticky pedals that caused it to recall nine million vehicles worldwide, and it has launched a public relations campaign in an effort to win back consumer trust. Privately, however, there are allegations that the company has admitted to congressional leaders that it still doesn't know what is causing the problem.

Congressional hearings are due later this month in an effort to get to the bottom of the acceleration problem, giving congressional leaders a chance to grill Toyota executives on the events of the last several weeks.

In the meantime, there have been troubling new developments reported from the office of the Chairman of the House Congress Committee, Henry Waxman. According to ABC News correspondent Brian Ross, Toyota executives told Waxman's staff in private that they don't know what was causing the rapid and unexpected acceleration, but that it could be electronic.

The NHTSA announced earlier this week that it would be taking what it calls a "fresh look" at electromagnetic interference in modern auto throttle systems as a possible cause of sudden and rapid acceleration.

Modern cars do not rely on the traditional mechanical connection of a previous era that physically connected the accelerator pedal with the fuel injection system—or before that, the carburetor—that governs the rpm of an engine. These days it's all done by wire, with sensors in the accelerator pedal feeding data to the engine electronically. The tactile, mechanical connection is gone. If you feel a mechanical connection to the engine when you push down on the accelerator, you're simply making an assumption. It's all in your head.

These days, the gas pedal transmits data to the engine. And as with most computers, and electronics in general, it's hard to pin down a problem that doesn't happen every time.

Apple Co-founder Thinks Toyota Problem Is "More Likely Software"

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, went public Tuesday with problems he's been having with his 2010 Toyota Prius. He told ABC's Brian Ross on Tuesday during a road test that when he lightly taps his cruise control, the car sometimes accelerates rapidly. All he has to do is tap on the brake to disengage the cruise control to resolve the problem, but it is troubling.

"I think it's more likely software, in my case, that caused it, and I can't cause it every time on every trip," he told ABC News. "But I'm sure it will happen again."

The car has on occasion accelerated to up to 100 miles an hour, with Wozniak's foot off the accelerator. Floor mats are also not an issue.

The NHTSA is looking into the matter again at the behest of the House Committee that will hold hearings on February 25. Waxman and his colleague on Capitol Hill, Bart Stupak, are seeking assurances that the problem at the heart of the massive recall is indeed sticking pedals and/or floor mats, and not by on-board computer systems.

The agency issued a statement that it would again look into the issue, but that the investigation will be but "a background examination of the underlying technological issues." It said it would meet with manufacturers and suppliers to "gain an even fuller understanding" of their electronic throttle control systems.

It will not be a defect investigation "because the agency has no reason at this point to believe there are safety defects in these systems or in their ability to function when exposed to electromagnetic interference."

"We're in a Lexus . . . we're in trouble . . . there's no brakes"

The NHTSA admitted that its 2008 tests were "very limited" and failed to show a link between the acceleration and electronic interference. Indeed, following the testing of a 2007 Lexus ES 350 for unintended acceleration, the NHTSA concluded that "the system proved to have multiple redundancies and showed no vulnerabilities to electrical signal activities."

Tell that to the surviving family and friends of Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer who was killed along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law when his Lexus ES 350 accelerated without warning last August—a year after the NHTSA signed off on their report.

A police officer with decades of experience, Saylor knew how to handle a car at high speeds. But he was no match for the malfunctioning Lexus, built by Toyota.

The 911 call came at 6:35 pm August 28, 2009 from a car that was speeding out of control on Highway 125 near San Diego.

The caller was panic-stricken:

"We're in a Lexus . . . we're going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck . . . we're in trouble . . . there's no brakes . . . we're approaching the intersection . . . hold on . . . hold on and pray . . . pray."

The call ended with the sound of a crash.

The Lexus ES 350 sedan hit a sport-utility vehicle, careened through a fence, rolled over and burst into flames.

Joan Claybrook, the former administrator of the NHTSA, told ABC's Good Morning America today that the reason her former employer didn't find any problem with the computer systems in that Lexus ES 350 was because the agency didn't look hard enough.

She said that the agency was aware of a problem prior to 2007 and that the NHTSA conducted a total of six investigations, none of which turned up anything. The government said as recently as this week that it is holding Toyota's "feet to the fire," according to comments attributed to the National Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Claybrook says the government is also partly to blame for the mess.

Congressional leaders had ordered the NHTSA to have a report available by February 25, but the agency said in its most recent statement that if its conversations with automakers and independent experts revealed the need, it would introduce a test that included subjecting a variety of vehicles to electromagnetic exposure. "If extensive testing becomes necessary, this examination could take at least several months," the statement said.

Oddly enough, the same 2008 NHTSA report that found "no vulnerabilities to electrical signal activities" did acknowledge that magnetic fields "were introduced in proximity to the throttle body and accelerator pedal potentiometers and did result in an increase in engine revolutions per minute of up to approximately 1,000 revolutions per minute, similar to a cold-idle engine rpm level."

That provides more fodder for those who are convinced that the rapid acceleration issue is not due to sticky pedals, but rather to a software issue in the throttle-by-wire system, or an intermittent electromagnetic interference problem, or both.

No Records for Test Protocols

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told the New York Times in a recent interview that it is hard to pinpoint or identify issues like electromagnetic interference because there is no obvious failed part to find.

Here's the interesting thing: When Ditlow requested from the NHTSA the test protocols they used on the throttle-by-wire and other computer systems for their 2008 investigation of the Lexus ES 350 through a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency replied late last month that it could find no records for test protocols. Ditlow found the admission troubling. He told a reporter for the New York Times that without those records it is impossible to gauge the quality of the research. That, he says, leaves open the question of whether or not electronic malfunctions are a problem.

On a final note, Toyota in Japan has admitted that the problem revealed yesterday with the regenerative brakes in the 2010 Prius hybrid may be a software glitch. Company executives in Tokyo said overnight that Toyota is re-designing the software and is considering a recall of all 2010 Prius hybrids already on the road or in dealer showrooms.

That admission may be telling, in view of the fact that more and more systems on modern cars that used to be completely mechanically controlled—brakes, transmission, even acceleration—are now governed by electronics and computer software.

For Toyota to claim that sudden uncontrollable acceleration may be due to a mechanically sticking pedal suggests that some high-ranking heads are buried deep in the sand.



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