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Toyota's acceleration issue

Blaming floor mats may not be enough; the automaker needs to look at its vehicles' electronics.

December 05, 2009

Toyota did the right thing when it recalled more than 4 million cars and trucks in response to mounting reports of unexpected and uncontrolled acceleration. But rather than sticking to its argument that the malfunctions stem from poorly designed pedals that get entangled with floor mats, the automaker should consider what happened to Eric Weiss. Otherwise, it may never get to the root of a problem that has claimed 19 lives in recent years.

As The Times' Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian have reported, Weiss says he had stopped his 2008 Tacoma pickup at an intersection in Long Beach in October when the truck, on its own, suddenly accelerated toward oncoming traffic. He was able to avoid a collision by clamping on the brakes and turning off the engine, but the incident left him reluctant to get behind the Tacoma's wheel again. And Weiss says the mats weren't the problem -- he'd removed them months ago on his dealer's advice. His experience, combined with similar complaints by other Toyota owners and additional pieces of evidence, points to a potential electronic problem, not a mechanical one.

Weiss was fortunate that his truck didn't have a keyless ignition system like those in many Lexus and Prius models. To turn off one of those engines while moving, drivers must press the "on" button for three seconds -- a task that's neither intuitive nor easy in a runaway vehicle.

Toyota insists that there are no problems with its "drive by wire" electronic throttles, a standard feature in all of its current cars and trucks. The technology's supplier tested it for sudden acceleration problems three years ago at the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and it received a clean bill of health. In response to a complaint this year, the NHTSA again blamed the floor mats.

Car owners have been reporting incidents of uncontrolled acceleration for decades, but the causes became significantly harder to track after mechanical throttles gave way to electronic ones in the 1980s. The NHTSA often blamed errant floor mats or confused drivers, which may well explain most of these incidents. But the number of complaints involving Toyotas and Lexuses -- still low compared with total sales -- grew significantly after the company introduced the drive-by-wire technology. That justifies more scrutiny.

To its credit, Toyota plans to do more than just shorten accelerator pedals to lift the bottom edge higher off the cabin floor. It says it also will add "smart pedal" software, idling the engine whenever the brake is pressed at the same time as the gas pedal. That kind of fail-safe technology is potentially lifesaving. But in addition to coming up with an effective treatment for the problem's symptoms, Toyota should also spend more time studying what's causing them.

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