Maybe another floor mat issue? Is the electronic throttle Denso-made?
Used on other models?
Toyota pickup probe pushed
Sudden acceleration claims hard to pin down
BY JUSTIN HYDE * FREE PRESS WASHINGTON STAFF *
April 7, 2008
It's a wonder Frank Visconi walked away from the crash that turned his
new Toyota Tacoma pickup into an unrecognizable mush of metal, plastic
and dirt. But Visconi has a different wonder -- why Toyota doesn't
believe his complaints of sudden acceleration.
Visconi, a retired vehicle theft investigator, describes driving down
a rain-slicked freeway north of Nashville last June when he tapped the
brakes to avoid another car. Instead of slowing, he says, the engine
revved, spinning out the truck's rear wheels. The truck ran off the
road, jumped an embankment and rolled several times before coming to
rest on its side.
His crash is one of eight in a passel of 33 complaints to federal
regulators that has restarted a decades-old debate about whether
sudden acceleration claims reflect vehicle defects or mental ones. At
a customer's urging, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration launched an investigation into 2006 and 2007 Tacoma
pickups over sudden acceleration -- the fourth such look in three
years at Toyota models over similar complaints.
The Tacoma cases have yet to suggest a technical explanation. Over the
past eight years, the agency has closed at least six investigations
into reports of unexpected or uncontrolled acceleration in vehicles
without finding evidence of defects.
On the day of the crash, Visconi was on his way to a Toyota dealership
to have it examined for uncontrolled acceleration. Since April 2007,
he had sent letters to Toyota, dealers and his insurance company
detailing several instances where he says the engine surged when he
hit the brake, including a couple of cases where he had to mash the
pedal to keep the vehicle under control.
"Toyota has said to us they've found nothing wrong with the truck and
it's our fault," Visconi said, referring to about a dozen Tacoma
owners with similar complaints. "They're basically calling us all
Federal officials and automakers maintain that without evidence of a
problem, the most likely answer will always be driver error. Before
last October's recall of Toyota and Lexus floor mats in Camry and ES
350 sedans, the NHTSA had triggered only two other similar recalls
"Sudden acceleration is a tough issue," said Ricardo Martinez, a
doctor who was the chief NHTSA administrator from 1994 to 1999. "If a
crash occurs, you always blame it on the vehicle, but most always the
investigation found that wasn't the case."
Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong says the company has found no problems
with the Tacoma that would explain the complaints.
"We don't feel it's an issue with the vehicle," he said. Regulators
"get sudden acceleration complaints from consumers for various
manufacturers ... and in most cases they have found it's a
misapplication of the pedals by the driver."
But attorneys and safety advocates argue that sudden acceleration
complaints are symptoms of defects, including electronic failures in
increasingly complex vehicle-control systems that may leave no trace
and can't be easily reproduced by a mechanic.
If there "were truly human error, there would be a proportional
distribution across models," said Clarence Ditlow, who has spent years
researching sudden acceleration as head of the Center for Auto Safety
in Washington. "It's very difficult to explain how some makes and
models have higher numbers of complaints than others absent some flaw
in the vehicle."
The NHTSA began receiving complaints about the current Tacoma and
sudden acceleration in late 2005. Some owners report trucks surging
after they put on the brakes, or while at a stoplight. Others say
their Tacoma surged while they were driving. A few said they were
barely able to control the vehicle using the brakes.
None of the complaints suggest a clear cause, and those who say
they've had their trucks inspected by a mechanic report no problems
The agency did not review the complaints until it was petitioned to do
so by William Kronholm, a retired journalist in Montana. After two
incidents of uncontrolled acceleration with his 2006 Tacoma within 2
hours in January, Kronholm examined the NHTSA's online database.
Kronholm said his research showed that compared with the mass of
Tacoma complaints, including six injuries, there were only four
reports of sudden acceleration from owners of all other 2006 and 2007
pickups. His Toyota dealer found no problem, and Toyota declined to
examine the truck.
The NHTSA has examined Kronholm's truck and sent a request for data to
Toyota. The agency doesn't comment on open investigations as a matter
of practice, and Toyota says it's cooperating. The investigation is
still in its early stages, and the NHTSA would need to take several
additional steps before suggesting a recall.
But without a clear cause, a recall seems unlikely no matter how many
drivers complain. From 2004 to 2007, the NHTSA closed three separate
investigations into sudden acceleration by Toyota Camrys and Lexus
ES330 models. In each probe, many owners complained of sudden
acceleration and gave similar details.
And in each investigation, no mechanical trend was found, and the
NHTSA closed the cases because of a lack of evidence.
The last time the NHTSA fully explored the issue of sudden
acceleration complaints was in 1989, following years of dispute over
vehicles such as the Audi 5000, the poster car for the problem because
of a "60 Minutes" report in 1986.
After sorting through thousands of complaints and running its own
vehicle tests, the agency found that where there was no mechanical
evidence of a vehicle defect, "the inescapable conclusion is that
these" cases "definitely involve the driver inadvertently pressing the
accelerator instead of, or in addition to, the brake pedal."
Automakers cheered the ruling, but by that time, they had started
installing brake-shift interlocks that forced drivers to apply a brake
if they tried to put a vehicle in gear. Throughout the 1990s, the
number of sudden acceleration complaints to the NHTSA steadily
But consumer advocates and attorneys say the NHTSA closed its eyes
rather than admit the problem. Tom Murray, an Ohio attorney who
specializes in sudden acceleration cases, said automakers and the
NHTSA did not want to acknowledge other possible causes of sudden
acceleration, namely electrical interference. Murray says complaints
rose as automakers stuffed new electronics in vehicles -- and fell
after they learned how to better shield those electronics.
"NHTSA accepted" the "claim of Audi that the absence of proof is proof
of absence," Murray said. "They made one of the most colossal blunders
by saying 'We can't find a defect inside the vehicle after the fact;
it must be the driver.' "
Murray said he has seen an uptick in complaints in recent years as
more vehicles, including the Tacoma, began to use drive-by-wire
systems -- where electronics replace mechanical connections between
the pedals, engine and sometimes the brakes. He and Ditlow maintain
that the NHTSA lacks the money to track down more complex electrical
failures, especially those that might be random and leave no physical
"I always thought that when Toyota went to drive-by-wire, the
likelihood of having sudden acceleration is going to increase," Ditlow
said. To order a recall, federal law "doesn't say you have to find a
failure mode, just a substantial number of failures."