Sustained Outrage

Toyota testimony, day one: What about the electronics?

There was some pretty gripping testimony yesterday before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, particularly from Rhonda Smith, of Sevierville, Tenn., about her experience when her new Lexus 350 ES sedan suddenly raced to 100 miles per hour in October 2006.

On this Thursday, I had planned on visiting my 85 year old father in Knoxville. I was driving my 2007 Lexus 350 ES from my home in Sevierville down Hwy 66 to I‐40 East. Upon entering I‐40 I accelerated with everyone else, into the flow of traffic. At this point, I merged over into the second lane, NOT going into passing gear.

It is at this time I lost all control of the acceleration of the vehicle. The car goes into passing gear and the cruise light comes on. At this time, I am thinking that maybe the cruise is what has caused the car to accelerate, as my foot is NOT on the gas pedal. I take off the cruise control. The car continues to accelerate. The car is now up to 80 mph. The brakes do not slow the car at all. Now I am at 85‐90 mph. I push the car into NEUTRAL and it makes a revving noise. I push the emergency brake on… nothing helps. I continue hitting and slamming the brakes. Now I am at 85‐90 mph. I look at the traffic ahead to see if I can maneuver in and out of the upcoming cars and trucks, or if I am going to need to put the car into the guardrail and into the trees.

The last time I looked at the speedometer it read 100 mph. At this time, I had the emergency brake on while frantically shifting between ALL the gears (besides park) but mainly had it in REVERSE and with the emergency brake on. I finally figured the car was going to go to its maximum speed and was praying to God to please help me. After about 3 miles had passed, I thought it was my time to die, and I called my husband (on bluetooth). I knew he couldn’t help me in this particular situation, but I just needed to hear his voice. What an awful 911 call he received at work.

At almost exactly 6 miles God intervened. I had not tried anything different that I had frantically tried before to slow the vehicle, yet the car began to slow down ever so slowly. It slowed enough for me to pull to the left median, with the motor still revving up and down. At 35 mph it would not shut off. Finally, at 33 mph I was able to turn the engine off. However, the radio remained on and I was not about to touch ANY button on that car, or ever again.

Smith’s testimony should serve as a harrowing rebuke for all of those people who, in response to reports of cars speeding out of control, suggest that the driver should have just shifted into neutral, or turned the car off.

Incredibly, the dealer told Smith and her husband, in writing, that “when properly maintained, the brakes will always override the accelerator.” Ultimately, an arbiter with the National Center for Dispute Settlement denied the Smith’s claim, and an investigator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told them it was “probably” floor mats, which were the subject of a major safety advisory by Toyota in September 2009.

Smith continued:

In summary, we would like to inform this committee and the American public that we feel we put forth our best effort in 2006 and 2007 to inform Toyota Motor Company and NHTSA of the potential for SUA to become a deadly issue.

Our hopes were that our efforts might help spare the unnecessary injury and loss of innocent lives. However, we failed miserably, all due to Toyota and NHTSA’s uncaring attitude and total disregard for human life.

One would think that Toyota, along with NHTSA’s help, would have stepped up and used some of their massive profits to address this now major, deadly problem.

It is our hope that this testimony will in some way help the families of those killed and those that sustained serious injuries from SUA. We also hope they will somehow benefit from the knowledge that we provided critical information to Toyota and NHTSA showing that the problem was not floor mats but in the electronics of their vehicles at least 3 ½ years ago.

Also on Tuesday, Dr. David Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, told lawmakers that he was able to recreate runaway acceleration, something that both Toyota officials and NHTSA investigators have said is very hard to do, by tinkering with the wiring in his 2010 Toyota Tundra.

The importance of these issues raised in the electronic throttle control system fail‐ safe strategies should not be underestimated. Sudden unintended acceleration of a vehicle a very serious safety concern that should be addressed without delay.

But the closest that James E. Lentz III, the president of Toyota Motor Company U.S.A., said that recalls on floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals might “not totally” address the issue of unintended acceleration. He said that in December 2009, Toyota hired Exponent to conduct independent testing of the electronics.

When Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., asked Lentz if the issue with unintended acceleration was a hardware problem or a software problem, Lentz replied: “I don’t think it’s either right now. Exponent has not tested the software yet.”

It’s interesting to note that Exponent was hired by Toyota’s defense attorneys–not its internal safety experts or engineers–after the automaker had already publicly claimed that it had addressed unintended acceleration with two recalls. As the Gazette reported, a class action lawsuit was filed in November in West Virginia alleging that Toyota’s recall did not address ongoing issues with their vehicles’ electronic throttle control systems, and that the recall did not include every affected year and model.

Finally, as Rhonda Smith noted, Don Dare of WATE-TV in Knoxville ran a story on her incident and her displeasure with Toyota and the safety agency’s response, or lack thereof, in May 2007, the only media outlet to take any notice of her complaints. You can read the original story here, and a recent follow-up story here.