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New Gov't Probe: What if Toyota's Problem is Not Pedals?

Posted: Feb 03, 2010 09:57 a.m.

Toyota has begun the process of modifying more than four million accelerator pedals worldwide due to reports that the pedals could stick in the down position, causing cars to accelerate out of their drivers’ control. But federal safety regulators say they have opened a new investigation of the problem. They’re not sure the problem is the pedals.

The Washington Post reports, “Federal regulators have launched an inquiry into whether engine electronics caused vehicles to accelerate unexpectedly as legislators and experts on Tuesday cast doubt on Toyota's explanation of its ‘runaway cars.’” The new investigation “could address years of complaints regarding electronic throttle control, the computerized gas pedal systems that now operate in most cars.”

The new review, the Seattle Times notes, “comes after a growing number of independent experts have voiced doubt about Toyota's explanation, saying it cannot account for all the reports of sudden acceleration and that part of the blame may rest with the electronic throttle system.” 

The Los Angeles Times explains, “Toyota has blamed more than 2,000 reported cases of sudden acceleration in its vehicles over the last decade on floor mats and sticky gas pedals, triggering massive recalls worldwide. The automaker has insisted that it knows of no electronic defect that could cause drivers to lose control of its vehicles.” But, while Toyota officials were assuring the public that floormats and sticking pedals were to blame, company “executives were acknowledging to” investigators from a House of Representatives committee “that they couldn't be sure about the causes.”

In particular, the LA Times reports, executives said that the known pedal problem might explain lower-speed acceleration, but “vehicles accelerating under wide-open throttles could not be explained by sticky pedals.” 

Many of today’s cars lack a mechanical throttle, instead relying on electronic “drive by wire” throttles that may be susceptible to interference from other electronics. USA Today notes, “Electromagnetic signals such as those from radar and cellphones could be interfering with electronic gas-pedal controls.” NHTSA officials plan “to meet with Toyota and other manufacturers, suppliers and outside experts to better understand the electronics that control engine throttles and the safeguards to prevent problems when vehicles are exposed to ‘electromagnetic interference,’ or EMI.”

Electromagnetic interference could come from many sources, including radar and electronics systems within the cars themselves. In theory, safety advocates have pointed out, EMI could lead to sudden acceleration in cars from virtually any manufacturer.  However, the Los Angeles Times notes, “complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles skyrocketed with the introduction of electronic throttles.”

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