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U.S. report finds no electronic flaws in Toyotas that would cause acceleration

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

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.

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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.

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.


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