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Toyota's runaway-car worries may not stop at floor mats

A fatal accident in San Diego raises the question: Might a vehicle's complex electronic features make it hard for drivers to react quickly when accelerating out of control?

October 18, 2009|Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger

The 2009 Lexus ES 350 shot through suburban San Diego like a runaway missile, weaving at 120 miles an hour through rush hour freeway traffic as flames flashed from under the car.

At the wheel, veteran California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor desperately tried to control the 272-horsepower engine that was roaring at full throttle as his wife, teenage daughter and brother-in-law were gripped by fear.

"We're in trouble. . . . There's no brakes," Saylor's brother-in-law Chris Lastrella told a police dispatcher over a cellphone. Moments later, frantic shrieks filled the car as it slammed into another vehicle and then careened into a dirt embankment, killing all four aboard.

The tragedy Aug. 28 was at least the fifth fatal crash in the U.S. over the last two years involving runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles made by Toyota Motor Corp. It is also among hundreds of incidents of sudden acceleration involving the company's vehicles that have been reported to Toyota or the federal government, according to an examination of public records by The Times.

Toyota has blamed the incidents -- apart from those caused by driver error -- on its floor mats, asserting that if they are improperly installed they can jam open the accelerator pedal. A month after the Saylor crash, Toyota issued its biggest recall in company history, affecting 3.8 million vehicles in model years as far back as 2004. But auto safety experts believe there may be a bigger problem with Toyota vehicles than simply the floor mats.

The Saylor crash and others like it across the country, they say, point to a troubling possibility: that Toyota's ignition, transmission and braking systems may make it difficult for drivers to combat sudden or unintended accelerations and safely recover, regardless of their cause.

Toyota is not the only car company to be hit with reports of sudden acceleration, but the San Diego fatality, the massive recall that came in its wake and Toyota's position as the world's largest automaker have focused intense scrutiny on the company by federal safety regulators and others.

"This is Toyota's Firestone," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, Mass., auto safety consulting firm. He was referring to the public relations disaster that hit Bridgestone/Firestone almost 10 years ago over defective tires that caused a series of fatal accidents.

"Right now," Kane said, "when you say sudden acceleration, Toyota is it."

In addition to Saylor and Lastrella, the San Diego crash killed Saylor's wife, Cleofe Lastrella, and their only child, 13-year-old daughter Mahala.

Signaling how seriously the company takes the incident, Toyota President Akio Toyoda made an apology this month while meeting with the Japanese news media.

"Customers bought our cars because they thought they were the safest," he said. "But now we have given them cause for grave concern. I can't begin to express my remorse."

One remedy being considered by Toyota implicitly acknowledges what critics have been saying for almost 10 years: that the company's highly computerized engine control system lacks a fail-safe mechanism that can quickly extinguish sudden acceleration events, whether they are caused by floor mats, driver errors or even unknown defects in the electronic control system, as alleged in some lawsuits.

Reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles has resulted in nine federal inquiries and investigations since 2000, two of which determined that there were improperly positioned floor mats. Another found a loose part in Sienna minivans, and yet another probe remains open. The rest were dismissed with no findings of equipment problems.

In most Toyota vehicles, the floor mats are held in place by two clips, which can come loose. Toyota offers a standard carpeted floor mat and an optional rubber version. Both mats have a cutout around the accelerator pedal. The vehicle driven by Saylor had a rubber floor mat, but Toyota said it was for a different model of Lexus.

Since the San Diego crash, Toyota has urged all its customers to remove their floor mats as an interim fix. But longer term, Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said, the company is examining significant design changes.

One possible remedy is to redesign the accelerator pedal to make it harder to get caught by a floor mat, he said. Another potential fix, he said, involves reprogramming the engine's computer to automatically cut power when a driver brakes while the gas pedal is depressed.

Such fail-safes are needed, auto experts say, because sudden acceleration can cause drivers to panic, diminishing their ability to take swift action -- such as shutting off the engine or shifting into neutral.

If anybody should have known how to stop an out-of-control car, it was Saylor, who was trained in emergency and high-speed driving as a 19-year CHP veteran. But a close look at the Lexus ES 350 raises questions about whether the car's very design may have compromised Saylor's skills.

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