U.S. Findings on Toyota Throttles Due Today

By | February 8, 2011

The Obama administration will release Tuesday the findings of its long awaited review of Toyota Motor Corp.’s electronic throttles over complaints of unintended acceleration.

The Transportation Department said in the early stage of the investigation that it had not uncovered any systemic flaw in the software driven systems in Toyota or luxury Lexus vehicles at the center of two massive recalls in 2009 and 2010.

While transportation officials Monday would not discuss the 10-month review prompted by congressional investigations, industry and safety experts do not expect a definitive defect finding that would inject new drama into the Toyota saga.

‘If they found something, I don’t think it could have been contained,” said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com, noting that the investigation was complex and any serious safety problem likely would have been disclosed.

But experts said regulators could use the spotlight to push safety upgrades that would affect all automakers. Auto safety investigators have been wrestling with unintended acceleration for decades and before Toyota usually blamed driver error.

Federal safety regulators are investigating reports that as many as 89 U.S. crash deaths since 2000 may be linked to unintended acceleration in Toyotas and Lexus vehicles.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said the company has not seen the new findings, but the Japanese automaker stood by its long held position that its software-driven throttle systems are sound.

The recalls of more than 8 million vehicles were linked to equipment and mechanical problems with accelerator pedals and floormats. The recalls and subsequent investigation prompted the government’s investigation of Toyota’s throttle system.

Shares of Toyota, which has hired an outside engineering firm to examine its throttles, closed up 38 cents to $85.13 on the New York Exchange.

The recalls, government scrutiny, which included testimony by Chief Executive Akio Toyoda at congressional hearings a year ago, and more than $30 million in fines damaged Toyota’s reputation for quality and reliability.

Toyota was the only major automaker to lose ground on sales in the United States last year although some blame the safety crisis for just part of its slump. Sales in January kept pace with other automakers but prompted new discounts for Toyotas.

The company also faces scores of related lawsuits in federal and state courts with an estimated $10 billion in potential civil liability.

Congress last spring ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to review unintended acceleration complaints involving Toyotas and Lexus vehicles, which began using electronic throttles almost 10 years ago.

Congressional investigators asserted that regulators for years did not probe Toyota closely enough for safety despite a stream of complaints from motorists that their cars and trucks would accelerate on their own, sometimes out of control. NHTSA never found a throttle defect.

This time, NHTSA enlisted NASA engineers and experts in electromagnetics and systems engineering to study whether any electronic flaws can cause unintended acceleration.

NHTSA and NASA conducted vehicle tests at the Chrysler Group LLC facilities in Michigan in which engineers bombarded vehicles with electromagnetic radiation. Software experts in California had unrestricted access to Toyota software code, and searched for any flaws or vulnerabilities, Transportation officials said.

NASA also tested mechanical components of Toyota vehicles to identify any conditions that could result in unwanted throttle opening.

NHTSA engineers and researchers also tested Toyota vehicles to determine whether there were any additional mechanical and electronic causes for unintended acceleration.

(Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Carol Bishopric)

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