Toyota Cites Driver Errors in Acceleration Cases

Toyota Motor Corp.’s investigation of accidents involving unintended acceleration where motorists said they pressed on the brake pedal shows that “virtually all” involved drivers who pushed the accelerator instead, a company spokesman said.

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, is looking into causes of unintended acceleration in its cars and trucks and has recalled more than 8 million worldwide in the past year for defects such as pedals that stuck or snagged on floor mats. U.S. auto-safety regulators are also probing the causes and haven’t released their findings.

The Toyota City, Japan-based company has reviewed about 2,000 reports of unintended acceleration since March, including analyses of information from event-data recorders when the incidents involved crashes, said Mike Michels, a Toyota spokesman at the U.S. sales unit in Torrance, California.

“There are a variety of causes -- pedal entrapment, sticky pedal, other foreign objects in the car” and “pedal misapplication,” Michels said yesterday in a telephone interview. Asked how many crashes were linked to pushing the accelerator when motorists thought they were pushing the brake pedal, he said, “virtually all.”

The company has yet to find evidence of electronic malfunctions, he said.

Toyota’s American depositary receipts, each equal to two ordinary shares, rose $1.23, or 1.7 percent, to $72.95 at 1:08 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

‘Totally Ludicrous’

Auto-safety advocates including Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, have questioned driver error as a cause. They have said automakers and regulators should take more seriously possibilities such as the failure of electronic controls.

“That is totally ludicrous,” Claybrook said of Toyota’s findings in a phone interview yesterday. “They should be looking at the electronics in their cars and everyone knows it.”

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that NHTSA’s analysis of Toyota data recorders found cases in which throttles were open and brakes hadn’t been deployed.

NHTSA’s Comment

“Engineers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are continuing to investigate the possible causes of sudden acceleration, along with the National Academy of Sciences and NASA,” said Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Transportation Department, which includes NHTSA, in an e-mailed statement today. “We have drawn no conclusions and released no data. We will follow the facts and inform the public when our investigation comes to an end.”

Attributing some of the sudden acceleration cases to driver error makes sense because “it hasn’t been a summer of careening Toyotas” after public attention focused on the issue, said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, California.

“Toyota is now going to walk a very tight line,” Bell said today in a phone interview. “They’re going to have to impress on their current drivers that they have to pay attention to their driving while at the same time they’ve built their fortune on making vehicles that are appliance-like.”

Brake-Override Technology

NHTSA said in May that Toyota vehicles involved in unintended-acceleration crashes may be linked to 89 deaths in 71 crashes since 2000.

The U.S. auto-safety agency previously investigated reports of unintended acceleration in Audi 5000 sedans and in a 1989 report concluded that human error was often the cause.

In the two decades since that report, more vehicles have been equipped with brake-override technology, designed to stop a car if the brakes and accelerator are applied simultaneously. Toyota has said it will install brake-override software in all new vehicles by model year 2011.

Toyota is facing more than 325 lawsuits in state and federal courts related to unintended acceleration, which has also been probed by U.S. lawmakers.

Company engineers last week showed Toyota’s main engineering facilities in Toyota City and Higashi-Fuji, Japan. Toyota demonstrated tests being run aimed at finding any potential cause of sudden acceleration arising from the electronic throttle control system and other components.

Toyota’s Tests

Tests include bombarding vehicles with electromagnetic interference at more than twice the level that would occur in real-world conditions, line-by-line evaluation of system software and testing of vehicles in laboratories that replicate hurricane-level rain and excessive heat and cold.

Toyota has yet to find further defects linked to unintended acceleration beyond problems with floor mats and sticky accelerator components, Dino Triantafyllos, Toyota’s U.S. vice president for vehicle quality, told reporters last week in Toyota City.