Conspiracy theorists are everywhere, even the auto industry. They believe Company XYZ (fill in your favourite) stifled development of the million-mile carburetor, that gas companies have played a similar role in ensuring electric vehicles aren't further along and that Toyota was hiding a problem that led to unintended acceleration.
These folks may not want to hear this - but the problem with the Toyotas was the driver - not some strange, hidden mechanical or electronic gremlin. Sophisticated independent studies have proven there was nothing wrong with the vehicles, that the brakes worked and throttles did not stick open on their own.
You might recall the terrific fuss a couple of years ago when a former California highway patrolman reported his Camry accelerating supposedly while he was applying the brakes. This was followed by hundreds of similar claims. Some said the floor mats were to blame, others that the electronic throttle control unit was the culprit and all said that the drivers had tried to use the brakes but they failed to bring the vehicle to a stop, some drivers even saying the car accelerated more once the brakes were used.
Toyota sales plummeted along with a reputation for building the highest-quality vehicles on the planet. Lawsuits multiplied and legislators formulated new regulations requiring auto makers to develop and equip vehicles with systems that would prevent this deadly occurrence.
The United States government ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the associated Department of Transportation to look into the matter. NHTSA called on NASA's Engineering and Safety Center and the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a thorough study of Toyota vehicles, including, but not limited to, those involved in crashes or other incidents blamed on unintended acceleration.
Several potential causes of unintended acceleration were investigated, including vehicle defects, mechanical or electrical failure, electromagnetic interference and pedal misapplication. The reports are in and guess what? Not a single case of unintended acceleration was found.
The combined work of the NHTSA, DOT, NASA and NAS, described in more than 200 pages of reports, identified "no electronic cause of unintended acceleration incidents involving large throttle openings" and "no reason to believe that any failure of the electronic throttle control (ETC) system would affect a vehicle's braking system."
The scientists and engineers examined tens of thousands of documents and 58 vehicles involved in unintended acceleration crashes. The event data recorders, common in modern automobiles, revealed that in none of the vehicles had the brakes been applied prior to the crash. In all but a few cases, the black boxes showed increased acceleration. The cases involving extreme speeds were found to be related to alcohol or medical problems. These data recorders showed neither acceleration or braking prior to the crash, indicating the driver was unaware of the pending incident.
To address claims that electronic failure or bugs were to blame, NASA engineers looked closely at a half dozen Camrys purchased from claimants who had reported problems with unintended acceleration. They examined thousands of lines of computer code, laced the systems with radiation and electromagnetic interference and found that numerous fail-safe features cut power if a failure occurred. They could not create a single case of unintended acceleration.
The studies found that in a few cases - where longer floor mats designed for a Lexus had been installed in a Toyota - the mat caused the throttle to remain open. But they also determined that "their braking systems were capable of overcoming all levels of acceleration, including wide-open throttle." Continuous strong braking effort proved to be most effective, pumping the brakes or applying partial pressure much less so.
"After conducting the most exacting study of a motor vehicle electronic control system ever performed by a government agency, NASA did not find that the ETC electronics are a likely cause of large throttle openings in Toyota vehicles as described in consumer complaints," NASA said in its conclusions.
The NHTSA report concluded that in cases where allegations were made that the brakes were ineffective or the incident began with brake application, "the most likely cause of the acceleration was actually pedal misapplication" - i.e., the driver was pushing on the accelerator, not the brake.
Both NASA and the NHTSA noted that "publicity surrounding NHTSA's investigations, related recalls, and congressional hearings was the major contributor to the timing and volume of complaints."
It is a terrible feeling to have a vehicle accelerate out of control. I've had this happen to me while at the wheel of a 400-horsepower vehicle during 80-120 km/h testing as part of AJAC's Canadian Car of The Year program a few years ago.
After lifting off the throttle when the digital instrumentation indicated it had captured the data, the vehicle kept accelerating and approached a concrete retaining wall at speeds rapidly increasing from 120 km/h. A shift into neutral and hard and continual pressure on the brakes saved the situation. But for a moment, an uncomfortable end was in sight. It proved to be a loose auxiliary floor mat that had become wedged behind the accelerator pedal.
In early 2010, I conducted instrumented testing of a number of 2010 model-year vehicles produced by General Motors, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Toyota/Lexus. All had automatic transmissions, most were front-wheel-drive but some had full-time all-wheel drive. Most were equipped with four winter tires but some had all-season rubber. Horsepower ranged from 140 to more than 300. In every single case, I was able to bring the vehicle to a complete stop from 100 km/h with the throttle held wide open and the left foot applying maximum brakes pressure.
This isn't the first time drivers have been found at fault. Audi suffered a similar raft of unfounded complaints about its 5000 model. It was vindicated by numerous studies that found drivers had applied the accelerator, not the brakes. I didn't believe those claims either and bought an Audi 5000 shortly after those reports for use by my family. In the same vein, I do not hesitate to recommend a Toyota as a high-quality and perfectly safe vehicle.
Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.