The company vigorously denies that its vehicles’ acceleration problems might stem from an electronic or software glitch. But it remains an open question, and any such finding would be devastating.
In the nearly five months since it launched a string of recalls to stop its cars from accelerating out of control, Toyota Motor Corp. has been adamant about one thing: It’s not the electronics.
Company officials first put the blame on floor mats that could entrap the accelerator, later amending that to include gas pedals themselves that could stick.
But they have vigorously asserted that there is no evidence of a glitch in the electronics or software that could cause cars to malfunction, a “ghost in the machine.”
Some independent safety experts, congressional investigators and others are just as certain that the risk of an electronic flaw is being dismissed by Toyota without an adequate examination.
The causes of unintended acceleration remain under investigation, but an admission by Toyota that sudden acceleration was caused by an electronic defect would be a devastating blow to the company’s already damaged reputation for quality, say engineers, attorneys and experts in crisis management.
Compared with mechanical problems such as floor mats and sticky gas pedals, an electronic hardware or software glitch can be difficult to find, costly to fix and would open Toyota to a new onslaught of lawsuits, these people say.
And considering the fact that every Toyota vehicle sold in the U.S. since the 2007 model year has an electronic throttle, with some models using the system dating to the 2002 model year, the number of potentially affected vehicles could reach into eight figures.
Indeed, less than 24 hours after Toyota announced its recall of the 2010 Prius and Lexus HS250h last week, at least two suits alleging economic damages to owners of the hybrids had been filed against the automaker, adding to a pile of suits related to the recalls now numbering in the dozens.
Beyond its legal liability, Toyota’s relationships with its customers could be further damaged by any finding that sudden acceleration is being caused by electronics, instead of floor mats or gas pedals, some say.
Toyota says it has repeatedly and thoroughly tested its vehicles, including their electronic throttle systems that replace traditional mechanical accelerator controls with sensors, wires and computers, with no finding.
So far, Toyota has proposed relatively low-cost fixes for the problems that cause sudden acceleration, such as a small shim for gas pedals that outside experts say probably costs a few pennies to produce.
But if an electronics problem is found, new microprocessors or new engine control modules could be a lot more expensive, aside from labor costs.
And though Toyota maintains that there are no bugs hiding in its wiring, the complexity of today’s onboard computer systems, which now run everything from skid control to windshield wipers, has proved thorny for Toyota and other automakers when it comes to recalls and other safety issues, a review of government records shows.
Only last week, Toyota admitted that a software problem on its showcase Prius model and other hybrids could cause a momentary loss of braking. It recalled 437,000 vehicles to reprogram computers. In 2005, it had dealers reprogram Prius computers to prevent engine stalling.
The top-selling Camry has been subject to two technical service bulletins — advisories of repair procedures to dealerships — to deal with engine surging in the 2002 and 2003 models. Electronics problems in the Camry go back at least to 1990, when the company recalled 120,000 of the sedans to replace a faulty cruise-control computer that could cause “engine racing” leading to “loss of control and an accident,” according to NHTSA records.
It also recalled the popular Lexus RX in 1999 for an electronic control unit that caused headlights and taillights to turn off without warning.
In December, NHTSA opened an investigation on whether the electronic control module in some Corolla and Matrix models could cause them to stall without warning, and the agency is also investigating the computerized vehicle stability control system on the 2003 Sequoia SUV.
Along with potential mechanical and electronic issues, Toyota vehicles have been investigated by NHTSA 13 times in the last 25 years for allegations of unintended acceleration, resulting directly in four recalls.
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