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NASA report likely to show no significant electronic defects in Toyota vehicles

The study was commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after thousands of Toyota owners complained about sudden acceleration.

February 07, 2011|By Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times

An investigation into sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles by the nation's space agency is expected to report Tuesday that no significant electronic defects have been found, though the issue requires continued monitoring, according to automotive electronics and safety experts.

The NASA report was commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after thousands of owners complained that their Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles accelerated unexpectedly, causing dozens of deaths.

The study was launched in March in the wake of three congressional investigations. It is scheduled to be made public at a press conference in Washington.

Although NASA and NHTSA have closely guarded the contents of the study, automotive safety experts say a dramatic finding is unlikely — saying that if NASA engineers had found a defect, the government probably would have asked Toyota to issue a public notice and recall.

"If they had found something already, we would have heard about it," said Jim Mucciola, an automotive electronics consultant in Detroit and a member of an electronics compatibility committee on the Society of Automotive Engineers. "So far, it has been very quiet."

At the same time, the report probably "will leave the door open" to potential problems with electronic systems, said Sean Kane, an auto safety consultant who has extensive contacts in the field. Kane also believes that the report will not produce a smoking gun.

Toyota's reputation and sales have been badly bruised over the last 18 months amid concerns about the reliability and safety of its products. It hired its own engineering firm to examine the issue about one year ago and trumpeted interim findings that exonerated its vehicles' electronics. A government finding that supported that conclusion could be a major victory for the company.

Indeed, it could help the company defend itself in scores of lawsuits over alleged sudden acceleration.

"If it's favorable to Toyota, it certainly would be argued by them as admissible," Raymond Paul Johnson, an El Segundo attorney representing a man whose wife was killed when their Camry plunged off a cliff.

Toyota officials said they had not seen the report, but "look forward to reviewing the NASA and NHTSA report regarding our electronic throttle control system," spokesman Brian Lyons said.

Former NHTSA senior counsel Alan Kam suggested that the outcome of the NASA report would be predictable.

"I don't have great expectations for the NASA report," said Kam, noting that NHTSA has repeatedly studied sudden acceleration and never found an electronic problem. "One federal agency doesn't usually take potshots at another, particularly when they're under contract."

Kam drew comparisons to a report that NHTSA commissioned to examine sudden acceleration in Audis. Published in 1989, the report found that the phenomenon was mostly because of driver error.

In the Toyota study, NHTSA asked NASA to examine Toyota electronics, software, wiring, throttle control and its in-house methods of analyzing potential faults.

The contract called for NASA to answer whether "some, or all, of the recent unintended acceleration events noted in Toyota vehicles be adequately explained by failure modes in the electronic throttle control systems." The report is being delivered six months past its original Aug. 31 date.

The study was based at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. NASA spokesman Christopher Rink said 30 full-time and part-time space agency engineers worked on the project. One aspect of the study exposed Toyota vehicles to high levels of electromagnetic radiation at a special Chrysler facility in Auburn Hills, Mich., experts said.

NASA principal engineer Michael T. Kirsch, a mechanical engineer, directed the study. Although most of Kirsch's work has involved launch propulsion systems and oxygen systems for the space station, he also has 21 years of experience in managing projects and test facilities, Rink said.

Although the overall conclusions of the study will be important, plaintiffs' attorneys will also focus on the methodology.

"We'll be looking for analysis of electromagnetic interference," Johnson said. "The proof is in the pudding."

A larger and more comprehensive research project on vehicle electronics and sudden acceleration is underway by the National Research Council, which is expected to issue its findings in July.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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