Toyota Pedal Recall May Spur U.S. to Require New Brake Systems
Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Toyota Motor Corp.’s U.S. recall of 5.6 million
vehicles for possible unintended acceleration may spur regulators to
require braking technology that prevents such sudden bursts of speed in
all future vehicles.
So-called brake override systems, which disengage the engine when the
brake and throttle are both depressed, are now on many newer autos that
use computers instead of cables to control acceleration. Toyota said
last month it is adding the equipment on most models, in response to a
Sept. 29 recall.
“There’s no question,” said Joan Claybrook, a safety advocate and former
director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “We are
going to see a brake override system requirement in response to this.”
New regulations would build on the government’s history of expanding its
safety rules in response to accidents that expose dangerous vehicle
defects. Upgrades such as improved fuel tanks, new gearshift designs and
air-bag warnings all flowed from federal mandates to automakers since
“The most likely outcome of this will be a regulatory catharsis,” said
Brian Johnson, a Barclays Plc analyst based in Chicago. “There will
probably be some sort of fail-safe system against unintended acceleration.”
Requiring automakers to upgrade braking software may cost $25 to $50 on
each vehicle, Johnson said. That expense would rise to a range of $50 to
$150 should regulators compel installation of new technology, he said.
A NHTSA spokeswoman, Karen Aldana, didn’t respond to a phone call or
e-mail seeking comment.
Brake override systems work in tandem with the electronic throttle
control technology that was unveiled in the late 1980s and is becoming
an industry standard as automakers rush to meet safety rules taking
effect in 2012.
Electronic throttle controls use computer signals, not the mechanical
action of cables attached to the accelerator pedal, to adjust a car’s
speed. In a conventional auto, releasing the pedal eases the cable
pressure, closing the throttle. In vehicles with an electronic control,
a brake override unit would cut power to the wheels if the throttle is
General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. now have brake override units on
some models, while Honda Motor Co. said it doesn’t have the technology.
Chrysler Group LLC said it has override controls on all autos with
electronic throttle systems.
Toyota said Jan. 11 it would install the technology to cover most of its
lineup after a 2009 recall. Hyundai Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. said
they have brake override systems, as do luxury brands such as Daimler
AG’s Mercedes-Benz, which put the units on autos with electronic
“It would make sense to require a brake override,” said Michael Omotoso,
a powertrain analyst at J.D. Power & Associates in Troy, Michigan. “I
would be pretty surprised if it didn’t happen soon.”
Toyota’s most-recent recall began Jan. 21, covering about 2.57 million
vehicles in the U.S. and Canada to fix pedals that may cause the
throttle to stick in an open position. The Toyota City, Japan-based
automaker halted sales of eight models and shut five North American
factories while it rolls out a repair.
That followed a separate recall of 5.35 million Toyotas after floor mats
in some models interfered with the accelerator pedal and kept the
throttle propped open.
The world’s largest automaker faces at least 29 lawsuits seeking class
action status in the U.S. and Canada, with 17 alleging defects in
electronic throttle control systems. At least 10 lawsuits have been
filed in the U.S. claiming deaths and injuries caused by sudden
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this week the government
is investigating whether some sudden speedups can be traced to
electronic throttle control systems. Toyota said it has found no
unintended-acceleration cases from the technology.
“I’m not sure if there are electronic gremlins in these cars that are
making them malfunction,” Bill Visnic, a senior editor for auto
researcher Edmunds.com in Weirton, West Virginia. “It’s not impossible,
but it’s improbable. But, either way, the brake system would prevent it.”
After introducing electronic throttle control, Toyota also had a cable
on the accelerator pedal as a backup from 1998 to 2002, when it
determined the mechanical link was no longer needed, said Brian Lyons, a
Had Toyota added a backup system such as a brake override unit to cut
power to the wheels, it could have kept most cars from losing control in
any unintended acceleration, said attorney Robert Hilliard, who filed a
suit on Jan. 29 seeking class action status in Corpus Christi, Texas. He
likened the approach to a sky diver wearing an emergency parachute.
“Let’s say your first chute doesn’t open,” Hilliard said. “The safety
chute doesn’t stop the problem, it just prevents the consequences.”
Antony Anderson, a U.K.-based electrical engineering consultant who has
testified as an expert witness for plaintiffs in lawsuits, said any
federal rule for brake override systems should ensure that the units
aren’t run by the computer controlling the electronic throttle system.
A case of sudden acceleration may be caused by electronic interference,
so brakes guided by the same computer might not work, Anderson said.
“If the electronics have malfunctioned, the software is in disarray,” he
said. “It won’t accept an additional command.”
Regulatory changes spurred a number of the features now taken for
granted in modern autos, said John Wolkonowicz, an analyst at IHS Global
Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Stronger fuel tanks, for example, emerged from the 1978 recall of about
1.5 million Ford Pintos on concern that rear-end collisions could spill
gasoline and ignite fires, Wolkonowicz said.
So-called shift locks, which require drivers to place a foot on the
brake before putting a car with automatic transmission in gear, came in
response to sudden-acceleration cases involving Volkswagen AG’s Audi,
Wolkonowicz said. Recalls of Audi 5000 sedans from the 1978 through 1986
model years began in 1982 after more than 1,000 complaints.
While NHTSA closed its Audi investigation in 1989, the class action in
that case is still pending in Cook County, Illinois.
More-recent automotive innovations include monitors to alert motorists
to low tire pressure, Wolkonowicz said. Those devices became required
after 271 deaths attributed to rollovers of Ford Explorer sport-utility
vehicles, which spurred recalls of Firestone tires in 2000 and 2001.
Worn, underinflated tires were cited for many of the Explorer crashes.
Claybrook, the NHTSA chief during the Pinto recall, said Toyota’s case
may prompt the U.S. to consider criminal penalties for companies that
don’t react quickly to safety flaws and boost fines for some infractions
to $100 million or more from a cap of $16.4 million.
Another likely quick fix is a warning label telling drivers how to stop
a vehicle that accelerates unintentionally, said Omotoso, the J.D. Power
analyst. Similar advisories were placed in cars after air bags were
blamed for deaths of front-seat passengers, he said.
“More and more of the direct control of the car is being taken away from
the driver, and there is this growing sense of helplessness in the face
of technology that’s supposed to help us,” Omotoso said. “You just have
to hope it all works.”