• 800px 09 Toyota Corolla

Last year we saw one of the biggest, and most controversial, issues in recent automotive safety history with Toyota and reports of sudden unintended acceleration.  Toyota blamed car mats, gas pedal moisture, and even driver error for the eruption of unintended acceleration incidents. Numerous deaths, injuries, and fines are alleged in various lawsuits to have been caused by this vehicle issue, and from November 2009 to February 2011, Toyota carried out a worldwide recall of 14 million vehicles.

However, the basis and effectiveness of these recalls remains up for debate. The automaker has steadfastly maintained that the phenomenon of sudden acceleration was not caused by any defect in the electronically-controlled throttles of its vehicles.  That position was supported by a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which was released in August 2010 and another report from last February which was completed by NASA.

However, a recent report from the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board criticized the NHTSA’s investigation into these vehicles, calling into question conclusions that the Toyota vehicles’ electronic systems function properly. The report did support NASA’s findings of no “conclusive evidence of an electronic defect,” the Los Angeles Times reports, but the report went on to highlight some serious shortcomings in the NHTSA’s report.

Other critics expressed additional concerns regarding the validity of the previous investigations carried out by NASA and the NHTSA. Some investigators claim the massive number of sudden acceleration complaints has never been fully explained by any of these reports.

In fact, a report from Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., a vehicle and product safety research group, explains that “electronics remain a largely unregulated area of vehicle safety, even as they dominate vehicle systems fleet-wide.”  The authors of this May 2011 report point out that although the unintended acceleration defects from Toyota’s vehicles represented a chance for the NHTSA to spend more time and money understanding vehicle electronics, “reports do not provide evidence that the agency has made the most of this opportunity.”

Another article from Safety Research & Strategies also addressed “tin whiskers.” In its article, SRS writes “the most significant physical evidence of a root cause of Toyota Unintended Acceleration discovered to date [are] tin whiskers in the accelerator position sensor.” Tin whiskers, which are electronically-conducive strands of tin that can grow on surfaces finished with the metal, might be a compelling explanation for electronic malfunction leading to a sudden acceleration event.

Although the National Research Council’s report from earlier this month signals the end of the government’s investigation into the sudden acceleration seen in Toyota vehicles, scrutiny of the automaker will likely continue amid alleged flaws in federal safety studies and continued complaints from vehicle owners. Early next year, hundreds of state and federal lawsuits are scheduled to go to trial over the countless injuries and economic damages that resulted from these vehicle defects, further ensuring Toyota’s struggles remain in the news.