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ABC News Alleges Toyota's Problem Isn't Pedals, and Isn't Fixed

Posted: Feb 23, 2010 10:05 a.m.

ABC News is alleging that Toyota may have misunderstood the cause of thousands of claims of unintended acceleration, and set about repairing more than 8 million cars in a way that may not correct the underlying problem.  The automaker insists it has seen the evidence ABC News offers, and engineers are convinced the media company is wrong.

With Congressional hearings into Toyota’s safety record kicking off in Washington today, the stakes for the Japanese company couldn’t be higher.

ABC News explains, “A flaw in the design of Toyota's electronic acceleration system prevents the car's onboard computer from detecting and stopping certain short circuits that can trigger sudden speed surges, according to a professor of automotive technology, Dave Gilbert of Southern Illinois University's auto technology department.”  The flaw could mean that short circuits caused by “corrosion, moisture, and manufacturing imperfections” could be behind the reports of sudden, unexpected acceleration. 

The news organization has posted video of a test Gilbert conducted, using a Toyota Avalon to demonstrate his theory.

Toyota, ABC News notes, “has consistently maintained there are ‘no electronic problems’ connected to sudden acceleration.”  Instead, the company “has maintained driver error, sticky gas pedals or pedals trapped by floor mats explain all of the thousands of reported incidents involving ‘runaway Toyotas.’”

Gilbert’s claim is particularly interesting to auto safety experts because the short circuits he alleges apparently do not cause the vehicle to record an error code.  Auto safety expert Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies “said the fact that the cars' onboard computers fail to detect the error could help to explain why Toyota has dismissed complaints from car owners about acceleration surges.”

In response to the ABC News claim, Autoblog reports, “Toyota has released a statement saying that Gilbert talked with the automaker on the March 16 after wiring a Toyota Tundra in a similar manner and causing the acceleration.” The company says that is “confirmed that what Mr. Gilbert described would not cause unintended acceleration to occur. In fact, under the abnormal condition described last week by Mr. Gilbert,” the company claims, the car should “illuminate the ‘check engine’ light, and the vehicle enters into a fail-safe mode of engine idle operation.” 

However, the company notes, Gilbert appears to be using a different vehicle in the ABC News tests.  Toyota would like to test that vehicle, saying it “welcomes the opportunity to evaluate the Toyota Avalon shown in today's story and the method by which Mr. Gilbert allegedly caused the vehicle to accelerate unintentionally. We welcome the attendance of ABC News at any such evaluation of this vehicle and Mr. Gilbert's testing.”

The issue of a possible electronic fault is likely to come up before Congress this week.  The New York Times reports, “Leading Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Monday that Toyota relied on a flawed study in dismissing the notion that computer issues could be at fault for sticking accelerator pedals, and then made misleading statements about the repairs.”  In remarks prepared for committee hearings, Toyota USA President Jim Lentz “expressed certainty that the repairs dealers had begun were the correct solution, and maintained that the computers in the cars were not to blame.”

For more information on Toyota's recent problems, including the latest news, please see our Toyota Recall page. If you're in the market for a new car, check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars as well as this month's best car deals