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Report clears Toyota on crashes

In the clear again: A report from the US National Academy of Science has further exonerated Toyota over claims of faulty electronic throttle control systems.

Toyota cleared on unintended acceleration but US report calls for electronics review

Toyota logo20 Jan 2012

TOYOTA’S electronic throttle control systems have been further exonerated from claims they caused numerous cases of unintended acceleration.

A new report issued by the US National Academy of Science’s National Research Council echoes findings of the 10-month investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that gave Toyota’s electronic throttle the all-clear last year.

However, the latest report cites concerns over safety implications stemming from the increasing use of complex electronics in vehicles and makes recommendations on how to deal with it.

The recommendations include increasing the ability of the NHTSA to better stay abreast of new technology, its safety implications and how to accurately determine if technology is a contributing factor to accidents.

Another recommendation is the proliferation of aircraft-style ‘black box’ event data recorders in vehicles to help determine whether an accident has been caused by a technical failure.

The NRC acknowledges that technology can help make vehicles safer and more efficient, but recognises the challenge of ensuring these systems are failsafe and do not endanger people if they malfunction.

The report says: “As more complex and interacting electronics systems are deployed, the prospect that vehicle electronics will be suspected and possibly implicated in unsafe vehicle behaviours increases.”

It recommends the systems include features that provide adequate warning and advice to drivers in the event of a malfunction and are able to accurately record diagnostic information that can be accessed post-failure.

Most vehicles do have some kind of fault-recording system but the NRC wants this to go further, saying “many errors by drivers using or responding to new electronics systems may not leave a physical trace.”

It also recommends that the NHTSA should endeavour to make sure electronic data recorders are fitted in all vehicles.

“The absence of physical evidence has complicated past investigations of incident causes, such as those of unintended acceleration, and may become even more problematic … as the number, interconnectivity and complexity of electronics systems grow,” said the report.

The NRC also advised the NHTSA to establish a panel of experts who can understand and advise on the safety implications of increasingly complex automotive electronics systems. The fact that the NHTSA had to enlist NASA to conduct the Toyota investigation suggests it did not have the expertise in-house.

Responding to the report, the NHTSA issued a statement saying it will “carefully consider” the recommendations and has “already taken steps to strengthen its expertise in electronic control systems while expanding research in this area”.

The investigations into reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles and the related inability of drivers to stop their vehicle using the brakes have put the incidences down to incorrectly placed or non-standard floor mats, and drivers mistakenly applying the accelerator instead of the brake.

However, some instances were due to throttle pedals that failed to return to the up position or were by design susceptible to being trapped by floor mats – issues Toyota was accused of hiding from the government despite complaints from customers.

This resulted in Toyota copping fines of $US48.8 million, recalling millions of vehicles world-wide and facing a number of lawsuits, not to mention the damage to its reputation for quality and reliability.

One of the most widely publicised cases was the death of an off-duty California highway patrol officer and three members of his family who were travelling in a Lexus ES 350 sedan when it accelerated out of control.

The US Transportation Department investigated dozens of reported deaths resulting from unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Some of the fixes performed by Toyota included retrofitting recalled vehicles with advanced brake-override systems that automatically slow a vehicle if it receives signals both to accelerate and brake.

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