• curves ahead

Today there is another significant development in the ongoing saga of the Toyota sudden unintended acceleration story.  As revealed in a Freedom of Information Act suit that was filed today by Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. (SRS), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has withheld materials and documents that might show some cases of unintended acceleration (UA) are caused by an electronic-based defect in some Toyota vehicles.  SRS alleges that the NHTSA videotaped these incidents and also “downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncontrolled.”

However, SRS says the agency never released this evidence, and moreover, initially failed to record any information about the event in its complaint. When SRS sent a Freedom of Information Act request last summer to the NHTSA for all documents associated with this incident, only a few documents were provided and the agency “refused to release the videos, photographs and computer data.”

In response, today SRS has again sued the NHTSA for improperly withholding “material that has vital public interest.” The SRS suit alleges that “the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding records involving the McClelland incidents.”

The complaint claims that last year two NHTSA engineers collected data and video during an inspection of a Toyota Prius owned by Joseph H. McClelland.  McClelland is an electrical engineer who works for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  Also according to the complaint, McClelland first experienced UA with the Prius after it had accumulated about 280,000 miles. During the first incident of UA, McClelland said that while driving home, the Prius began to carry out “severe acceleration.” Aware of the controversy regarding Toyota’s vehicles and Toyota’s position that the problem can be caused by floor mats and gas pedals, he inspected both and found they were in their normal positions. The accelerator pedal was not in contact with the mat and sat fully up while the engine revved.

After the phenomena occurred several more times, McClelland called the NHTSA.  A NHTSA representative returned his call and told him to leave his vehicle parked until engineers came out to inspect it.

In mid-May, two NHTSA engineers met with McClelland and inspected his Prius.  When the engineers reportedly took the Prius for a test drive the Prius reportedly again began to suddenly accelerate.

According to McClelland, “They asked at that point if while the vehicle was accelerating, they asked if the floor mat was in place or if the accelerator was stuck, and I lifted my foot up and I said ‘Check for yourself.’” McClelland said that the engineer looked and confirmed that the accelerator was in its full up position and the vehicle was accelerating on its own.

The engineers videotaped the phenomena, McClelland said, and “generally seemed excited” because they had not seen a vehicle “display this behavior before,” let alone capture it in “real-time.” They NHTSA engineers claimed this information they collected could help “put some of the pieces together,” McClelland said.

However, the agency apparently later had a change of heart. After being told that the NHTSA may want to purchase his vehicle for research, McClelland waited three months before hearing from them again.

When he did hear back, McClelland said they told him they had no interest in purchasing his Prius because they “determined that the vehicle was an end-of-life issue” and was not “pertinent to the interest in the sudden acceleration cases with Toyota.” The said they felt a failed hybrid cell in the hybrid battery had caused the unintended acceleration. However, McClelland said he went on to ask whether this could occur in any vehicle, regardless of its age, to which the agency responded, “they really hadn’t examined that aspect.”

This response appears to follow a pattern established by the NHTSA of ignoring or downplaying evidence pertaining to the sudden acceleration issue. Last year DOT Secretary Ray LaHood assured the public after the release of the NHTSA-NASA report that Toyota’s Electronic Throttle Control System Intelligent (ETCS-i) played absolutely no part in the reports of UA.

However, according to the NASA scientists who authored the report, “Because proof that the ETCS-I caused the reported UAs was not found does not mean it could not occur.” SRS further explains that the scientists said that “absence of proof that the ETCSi caused a UA does not vindicate the system.”

LaHood also went on to assert in another interview last February that all complaints are carefully studied and taken seriously.  Seriously?  The McClelland case shows that this statement is patently false. Sean Kane, President of SRS, observed that the “NHTSA continues to brush aside incidents and data that don’t fit their narrative.”

SRS also alleges that Toyota dealers “continue to follow the floor mat/driver error script” when drivers report incidents of unintended acceleration, despite reports that over 240 cases of UA have occurred after repairs were made on vehicles “in one or more of the Toyota recall remedies.”

Most incidents of UA have been reported to have occurred at low speed.  However, there have been also been reports of UA at highway speeds as well, with some resulting in catastrophic injuries and deaths.

Hopefully press coverage of the SRS suit and the McClelland case with help re-ignite NHTSA’s investigation, and inspire them to take a further look at the sudden acceleration issue. The facts of the McClelland incident certainly suggest, at least from a common sense perspective, that there might be another explanation to UA events other than floor mats and gas pedals.  It’s not a simple issue, and the complexities of vehicle software, ‘tin whiskers’ and electronic system hardware make this an incredibly complex issue for government investigators to explore.  However, NHTSA should not be allowed to sweep this issue under ‘the mat’ in the face of what could be a serious ongoing risk to highway safety.