During a two-year span between 2010 and 2011, Toyota recalled more than 19 million cars and trucks worldwide as a result of an investigation into sudden, unintended acceleration problems that Toyota blamed on loose floor mats. Of course, the acceleration problems in those cars were later proven to be caused by a defect in the electronic throttle system, with the floor mats playing a very small role. Yet, while the media was focused on the fanfare concerning the electronic throttle system problems in millions of Toyota vehicles, the federal regulators and Toyota quietly closed an investigation related to failures in the electronic power steering in Toyota Corolla and Matrix vehicles.
In February 2010, the federal government opened an investigation of Toyota after receiving more than 168 complaints from consumers that the electronic power steering in the 2009-2010 Corolla and Matrix vehicles was prone to drift or lock up at highway speeds. Specifically, consumers were complaining that the electronic power steering would pull the wheel out of the driver’s hand or, even more troubling, the steering would lock up altogether. In response, Toyota said that there had actually been 437 complaints of steering problems covering 395 vehicles. Privately, it was estimated that there have been more than 900 complaints about the electronic power steering failures in Toyota Corollas. Toyota conceded that, within these numbers, there had been 11 injuries and 18 crashes as a result of the problems. Toyota claimed it was not a “safety defect,” but only a “customer satisfaction issue.” Where have we heard that before? How about in an Oklahoma court?
During this time, Toyota greatly desired to avoid the issuance of yet another recall of one of its most popular-selling vehicles. The Toyota Corolla was Toyota’s second biggest seller in the U.S. with approximately 266,000 vehicles sold in one year alone. Toyota was in the middle of an explosive safety crisis caused by the sudden intended acceleration problems in its other vehicles, including the popular Camry. Thus, Toyota was looking for a boost from the U.S. regulators in hopes of trying to regain consumer trust and could ill-afford another recall affecting such a large population of vehicles. Toyota lobbied the regulators by telling them that the problem was not “a safety defect,” but instead was just a driver “feel” issue.
To avoid a costly and expensive recall, Toyota and the federal regulators agreed that Toyota would send out a Technical Service Bulletin to its dealers advising the technicians to check tire and pressure alignment. If that did not work, Toyota would replace the computer that governs the electronic power steering with a new unit that had been “re-tuned” with an “alternative steering feel.” As a result, NHTSA closed its investigation in May 2011. By not classifying the Corolla/Matrix issue as a safety defect, Toyota saved a lot of money. It avoided additional bad publicity for an automaker that had recalled millions of vehicles worldwide.
Obviously, there are thousands of Toyota Corollas still on the highways that may be experiencing failures in the electronic power steering. If you would like more information about this problem, contact Dana Taunton, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury/Products Liability Section, at Dana.Taunton@beasleyallen.com or call her at 800-898-2034.
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