By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 12:00 AM
Government investigators have rejected claims that electronic defects caused Toyota cars and trucks to accelerate out of control, a finding released Tuesday that offers a measure of long-awaited vindication for the world's largest automaker and shifts blame to the drivers who reported the incidents.
The report, based on work by NASA engineers, deflates accusations by drivers suing Toyota that mysterious electronic glitches instigated the episodes of runaway cars. It also supports the industry trend of entrusting critical engine operations to ever more sophisticated electronics and microprocessors.
"The jury is back, the verdict is in," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during a sometimes defiant news conference. "There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period."
But the debate over engine electronics is very likely to continue, particularly in courtrooms, where Toyota is facing complaints from alleged victims and owners, and possibly on Capitol Hill, where auto safety legislation has stalled.
"Our experts tell us that the report is just wrong, and they are confident that they are going to be able to show that the electronic throttle control contributed to unintended acceleration," said Steve Berman, co-lead plaintiffs' counsel in a class-action suit filed on behalf of millions of Toyota owners who say the controversy caused their cars' value to drop.
Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, was also critical of the report from the Transportation Department.
"Their report points out that only one in 100,000 cars have had unintended acceleration, but then they tested only nine vehicles," he said. As a result, he said, the odds of the scientists finding a vehicle with the problem were very slim.
Toyota has been at the center of a public furor since 2009, when thousands of drivers reported a defect that became known as "sudden unintended acceleration." Eventually, Toyota recalled nearly 8 million vehicles in the United States and paid a record $48.8 million in fines for delaying recall campaigns.
While the company said some of the incidents - including a widely reported quadruple fatality in California - could have been caused by sticky gas pedals or misplaced floor mats, safety experts, plaintiffs' attorneys and many in Congress suggested that the flaw was a more ominous glitch in newfangled engine electronics.
With the ubiquity of computer chips, the operation of all carshas become increasingly complex, and Toyota had been transitioning from mechanical throttles to electronic ones. In some models, such as the Camry, the number of complaints of unintended acceleration appeared to jump after the cars were equipped with the new electronics, according to data presented to Congress. So some experts suggested that the root of the defect was in the computer code.
But Tuesday's finding largely dismissed such notions and was quickly embraced both by Toyota and by regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency's critics had said that it too easily dismissed consumer complaints of acceleration as "pedal misapplication," or driver error.
"As we stated last year, there are only two real-world causes of high-speed unintended acceleration in Toyotas," LaHood said.
In releasing the NASA finding, NHTSA officials noted that their inspections of 78 vehicles involved in acceleration incidents suggested that the cars were fine and that the drivers were the problem. The inspections indicated that drivers had been applying the accelerator and not the brake, except in one instance when the pedal was entrapped by a floor mat. Fifty-eight of those vehicles had "black boxes" that recorded precrash information.
"I'm very disappointed that they would continue to attribute the problem to driver's error and floor mats," said Rhonda Smith of Tennessee, who testified to Congress that her Lexus ES 350 had sped out of control for six terrifying miles. "I looked at my feet - and I know it wasn't the floor mat - and they were firmly planted on the brake. I still stand by the truth that I told. I do firmly believe that there is a vehicle defect that they've just not found."
In conducting the 10-month, $1.5 million study requested by Congress, engineers said they evaluated the electronic circuitry in Toyotas, analyzed more than 280,000 lines of software code and drenched the cars in electromagnetic radiation to see if it caused unintended acceleration.
The study also involved reviews of more than 500,000 records obtained from Toyota. And at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, NASA hardware and systems engineers tested the cars' mechanical components to identify conditions that could unexpectedly open the throttle.
Aiming to reduce "pedal misapplication," the NHTSA said Tuesday that it will research the placement of accelerators and brake pedals, as well as driver behavior.
"We hope this important study will help put to rest unsupported speculation about Toyota's [electronic throttle], which is well-designed and well-tested to ensure that a real world, un-commanded acceleration of the vehicle cannot occur," Steve St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality officer for North America, said in a statement.
But while the finding is in some ways an endorsement of Toyota's electronics, the safety agency is continuing to study the operation of electronic engine controls throughout the industry and could enact measures to ensure their safety.
The NHTSA is also weighing rules requiring cars to have brake override systems, which, when the engine receives an electronic signal that both the gas and brake pedals are depressed, allow the brakes to have priority.
Plaintiffs in some of the Toyota lawsuits have alleged that the lack of a brake override system, which some other manufacturers use, constitutes a defect. Drivers in some instances reported stepping on the brake but that it could not overcome a surge in power.
"We've alleged that Toyota's vehicles were defective because they lacked a brake override system, and this confirms some of the things we're alleging," said Berman, the class-action attorney.
Separately, an independent panel of experts at the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a broader review of unintended acceleration and car electronics across the automotive industry. It is scheduled for completion this year.
After the controversy erupted, Toyota officials said they felt confident the company addressed safety concerns by installing a brake override system in newer models.
"Strategically, this is a big deal for Toyota," said Jeffrey A. Curran, an Oklahoma City lawyer who specializes in defending businesses in such suits. "It's not the end of the road, but they've certainly cleared a hurdle. Toyota gave the engineers everything to look at, and the engineers could not get anything to happen. They just couldn't find it."
Although NHTSA officials said the evidence showed there were no electronic causes for the acceleration reports, NASA engineers were more guarded.
"NASA found no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations," said Michael Kirsch, principal engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center. But, he said, "our detailed study can't say it's impossible" but rather "unlikely."
"The issue is not going to go away just because they didn't find anything," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com, which provides price quotes and reviews for vehicles. "The fact that they couldn't replicate unintended acceleration doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, whatever the cause. It's very hard to prove a negative. It was a good move to bring NASA in for credibility, but we haven't moved the ball forward. This will be an issue that will continue to fester."
Earlier Tuesday, Toyota reported a 39 percent drop in quarterly profit but raised its full-year forecasts for sales thanks to a booming market in Asia and other emerging economies.
Toyota's stock price jumped on the improving forecast and surged after the NHTSA report was released, hitting a 52-week high during trading. The shares closed up more than 4 percent.