NPR

Probe: Driver Error Caused Unintended Acceleration

The Transportation Department says an investigation into sudden, unintended acceleration of Toyotas shows they were caused by mechanical problems, not electronic glitches. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says NASA engineers examined hundreds of thousands of lines of software code to look for flaws.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Shares in Japan's number one automaker Toyota jumped almost five percent after American transportation officials released a key report.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that faulty electronics played no role in cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars.

As Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, it's very good news for a company still trying to rebuild its reputation.

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TRACY SAMILTON: Victory Toyota's massive service garage in Canton, Michigan isn't all that busy today. There is only one car on a lift that was brought in under a recall. But last year at this time, the place was jammed. Toyota had just recalled millions of its cars for gas pedal defects that could cause unintended acceleration. Those recalls shook the company's reputation for safety like an earthquake.

Dean Stewart is service manager for the dealership.

Mr. DEAN STEWART (Service Manager, Victory Toyota): I mean we were open seven days a week, we had two shifts, we were working 90 hours a week just to make sure we could take care of our customers.

SAMILTON: Toyota admitted that in some cases loose floor mats could get trapped on gas pedals, and that some gas pedals had become sticky, and wouldn't always fully release. But meanwhile, thousands of lawsuits alleged another reason for cars speeding out of control: electronic throttle control systems, triggered, perhaps, by electromagnetic interference.

NASA scientists found no evidence for those claims. They did find there was pedal misapplication. There's another way to say that.

Mr. STEWART: Driver error.

SAMILTON: In other words, drivers hitting the gas instead of the brake.

Now that doesn't mean any Toyota car driver who hit the wrong pedal is necessarily inept.

Michelle Krebs is an auto analyst with Edmunds.

Ms. MICHELLE KREBS (Senior Editor, Edmunds.com): What we always need to think about is: why is there driver error? A lot of times that is caused by design. And Toyota indeed went back to the drawing board and did some redesign on its pedals.

SAMILTON: So, maybe some people will file new lawsuits claiming their mistake was really Toyota's fault. But the lawsuits alleging electronic defects are vulnerable to a motion to dismiss by Toyota.

John Pottow is a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Professor JOHN POTTOW (University of Michigan): In terms of these lawsuits, I don't want to say the lawsuits are dead, but it's certainly time when you have that awkward discussion about the living will.

SAMILTON: Getting the lawsuits dismissed would be one less challenge for Toyota. It still has a few left. The recalls have cost $2 billion so far, on top of a record $49 million fine. Currency fluctuations are hurting profits. And Toyota's newest cars are being launched later than its competitors like Ford, Hyundai, and General Motors.

But Edmunds analyst Michelle Krebs sees a silver lining. She says Toyota is learning from the mistakes it made even before the recalls.

Ms. KREBS: They didn't listen to what was going on in the United States back in Japan where all the decisions were made. They are trying to fix that.

SAMILTON: Toyota says it has rededicated itself to the values that made it the number one global automaker. What's unclear is whether Toyota can regain the almost bulletproof reputation for safety it once had in this country.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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