Concerned that regulators are dismissing electronic problems in Toyota vehicles, Safety Research and Strategies, an auto safety firm, has sued the federal government to get records of an investigation into the unintended acceleration of a Prius last year. The freedom-of-information lawsuit filed by the firm said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was withholding documents and videos that may depict an acceleration incident caused by electronic systems in a Prius instead of the floor mats or pedals covered by Toyota recalls. The suit seeks transcripts, recordings, photographs and videotapes generated by a visit of two federal investigators to the home of Joseph H. McClelland, a senior government official who had complained about sudden, unexplained acceleration of his own Prius.
Federal investigators visited McClelland’s home on May 17, 2011, and documented the sudden acceleration problem. They also recorded evidence of the problem. Although other Toyota owners have suspected that sudden acceleration was caused by electronic systems, federal regulators have said they have found no evidence of such a cause. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, is the latest effort by Safety Research to force the government to release internal records that could cast doubt on whether it sufficiently investigated possible electronic problems in Toyota vehicles. Sean Kane, co-founder of Safety Research, an auto consulting firm in Rehoboth, Mass, had this to say:
This is all about transparency. This is an agency that selectively releases data that fits its narrative that electronics are not at fault in sudden acceleration.
NHTSA has admitted that it did conduct an investigation of McClelland’s Prius, but said it did not find any link to known causes of unintended acceleration. The agency closed a lengthy investigation of Toyota last year without finding defects in the company’s electronic throttle systems. Instead, NHTSA concurred with the automaker’s explanation that faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals were causing Toyota’s vehicles to suddenly accelerate out of control. I understand neither were found by the investigators when checking out the problems with McCelland’s vehicle.
According to Safety Research, NHTSA is ignoring acceleration complaints that can’t be explained by driver error or defective floor mats and pedals. McClelland, an engineer and director of the Office of Electric Reliability at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, called NHTSA after experiencing repeated incidents of unintended acceleration in his 2003 Toyota Prius. The car was not included in Toyota’s recalls of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide in 2009 and 2010 for problems with floor mats and pedals.
McClelland was driving between his home and Washington on May 5, 2011, when the car’s engine surged repeatedly, forcing him to shift into neutral, pull off the road and shut the vehicle off. He described how his Prius “over-accelerated” several times on the 200-mile round trip. McClelland said in a sworn statement given to NHTSA that “the engine started to rev — actually almost roaring — and the vehicle picked up speed.”
McClelland noted in the statement that the accelerator pedal was neither stuck nor constrained by the floor mat. Each time the car sped up, he said he was able to apply the brakes, turn the vehicle off and restart it. After researching NHTSA’s web site about Toyota’s acceleration issues, McClelland contacted the agency. Two investigators came to his home and accompanied him on a test drive of the Prius.
According to McClelland, his car over-accelerated three times during the drive and its electronic displays began blinking wildly. The investigators videotaped the events and inspected the floor mats for interference. At the end of the test, they connected a computer to the car to read its software codes. McClelland had this to say concerning the investigation:
They (the NHTSA investigators) generally seemed excited. They said they hadn’t seen a vehicle display this type of behavior before, capturing the information in real time, and they said this could be an important vehicle for the sudden accelerations and it might help put some of the pieces together.
NHTSA did not follow up until McClelland received a call from one of the investigators in August. He was told that the vehicle’s age and high mileage were the probable causes of its problems. When Safety Research learned of the inquiry, it asked that a formal defect complaint be logged in the agency records and made a legal request for documents. While Safety Research was denied photos and videos, it did receive six of 22 pages in the case file, including one handwritten note that described how the Prius “started racing wildly” during the test drive.
Safety Research has since bought the car for $27,000 from McClelland. Sean Kane believes that electronic malfunctions in the throttle system were to blame for the unintended acceleration. He believes that data withheld by NHTSA could yield evidence of that and observed:
This car took off with two NHTSA engineers in the vehicle. The dashboard went crazy, and they recorded it with video cameras. Then three months later, they’re not interested and don’t even file a complaint?
In a statement, NHTSA said investigators “did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases.” It also noted that the vehicle “could easily be controlled by the brakes” and “displayed ample warning lights” indicating engine trouble. Safety Research has identified more than 300 other unintended acceleration complaints about Toyota vehicles reported to NHTSA last year that bear scrutiny. In December, the firm sued NHTSA to get documents related to an unintended acceleration case involving a 2007 Lexus RX in Sarasota, Fla., in 2010.
In response to the suit, NHTSA said it “carefully reviews” more than 40,000 consumer complaints each year. But the agency made it clear that it has no plans to reopen its acceleration inquiry, saying in a statement:
While there are some groups that are continuing to raise the specter of potential electronic issues around unintended acceleration, the exhaustive ten-month study made clear there are two mechanical causes of sudden, high-speed unintended acceleration in certain Toyota vehicles: pedal entrapment and sticky pedals.
Hopefully, Safety Research will be successful in its efforts to obtain the information it seeks. It’s good to know that there are groups and firms such as this one that are both willing and able to stand up for the public on safety issues. Safety Research should be commended for its efforts.
Source: New York Times
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