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Is Toyota's "ghost in the machine" dead?


NHTSA officials investigate a Toyota Prius crash in Harrison, NY, in 2010. (AP)

Toyota has announced another major recall to address problems with stuck gas pedals.

Late last month, the Japanese automaker issued a recall for the 2010 Lexus RX 350 and the 2010 Lexus RX 450h to correct a floor mat entrapment issue. That means about 154,000 car owners will be making a trip to the dealer soon. The grand total for recalls related to stuck accelerators in Toyota products, according to the Department of Transportation, is now more than 10 million vehicles.

However, conspiracy theorists, a safety expert, and those who have experienced sudden unexplainable surges have insisted for years that some Toyota vehicles also have electrical problems that caused crashes, the so-called “ghost in the machine.”

Yet, the numbers tell a different story.

For starters, Toyota spokesperson Brian Lyons told that there has been a 95 percent decrease in the number of complaints about sudden acceleration across the board since the height of the automaker’s acceleration crisis. This indicates that the company has educated customers, the recalls have worked, and the floor mat and sticky pedal problems are being fixed.

By comparison: He said there was a 1,000 percent increase in complaints over just a couple of months in 2010 when the issues first came to light.

These complaints are well documented. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) runs the website where drivers filed 230 “vehicle speed control” complaints for the 2010 Toyota Prius, even though that hybrid car has a brake override function that should render any problem with the accelerator pedal irrelevant.

“I was entering a parking space, I approached the space about 5 mph,” wrote one 2010 Prius driver in a complaint. “The vehicle suddenly accelerated, the steering locked and the brakes went to the floor. The vehicle jumped the curbing and hit the truck in the next right hand space.”

This particular model year for the Prius was never subject to a recall for the ill-fitting floor mats or sticky gas pedal assemblies that caused sudden acceleration in other Toyota products, but many of the complaints insist there was a speed control problem or unintended acceleration. Some blame electrical glitches. “You often get the feeling that the car is accelerating rather than braking,” said another complaint for the 2010 model.

Then, for the 2011 and 2012 models, both essentially identical to the 2010, the complaints suddenly dropped off. New reports of problems with the 2010 models also dried up. Toyota did address them – but not as an acceleration problem.

“We saw an increase in consumer complaints in the engine speed control category in the VOQ (Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire) database on 2010 Prius shortly after the launch of the redesigned model,” says Lyons. “Upon investigation, including discussions with customers, it was determined that drivers were not satisfied with the brake feel during slow and steady application of the brakes on rough or slick road surfaces when the ABS is activated. Toyota launched a recall to update the ABS software on February 9, 2010.”

In early 2011, the NHTSA worked with NASA engineers to test the gas pedals on actual Toyota cars that had exhibited acceleration problems. The landmark study put the blame squarely on floor mats, sticky pedals and driver error, but could find no electronic cause.

“Educational efforts from the manufacturer, us and other organizations have helped educate drivers about the issue of pedal getting stuck on the mats, hence showing a decrease on reported instances,” says Jose Ucles, a spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most experts blame the rash of acceleration complaints on hype.

“I think it was made perfectly clear through numerous testing by many organizations that this was a floor mat issue,” says Dave Sullivan, an analyst with Auto Pacific. “No one is claiming to make a perfect vehicle, but no one has proven that we have a widespread electronics issue either.”

“[Modern cars] use various fail-safe control mechanisms such as sensors that measure pedal position redundantly,” says Erik Wilhelm, a researcher at MIT. “If the gas pedal sensor is perceived to be broken, for example, they switch to a safe mode to make the vehicle limp home.”

Both Wilhelm and Sullivan said that automakers spend thousands of hours per vehicle performing diagnostics to make sure there isn’t an accelerator malfunction.

Not everyone agrees the problem has been completely solved, however.

Sean Kane with Safety Research and Strategies, a consumer advocacy group, says there could be electrical problems that cause sudden acceleration. “There isn’t one singular issue. Toyota is looking for a silver bullet, but there is a host of problems that appear to stem from a lack of robust diagnostic system. The US government has failed to move beyond the era of mechanical controls.”

Kane says there isn’t a well-documented standard that all automakers must follow to prevent sudden acceleration. He says several problems could cause sudden acceleration, such as “tin whiskers” that appear over time on the electrical parts and shorts in the electrical system.

“In theory, it is possible that there is a software bug in the computers between the gas pedal sensor and the throttle,” says Wilhelm, who also said that fail-safes and overrides fix these problems.

Sullivan says he agrees that standards should be developed, especially as we move into an age where vehicles rely more and more on computers in the car for safety and robotic driving.

“It's going to be important to see regulation and SAE standards. NHTSA, DOT, and the auto industry have to stay on the bleeding edge of technology,” he says. Yet, he’s also not an advocate of over-regulation. Regulation after development will only stifle innovation and delay development. Doing things right the first time will keep costs down and technology development on-time.”

In the meantime, the statistics tell the story: the complaints have dropped off significantly.

“The efforts we have made over the past two years have reduced the risks of potential floor mat interference in our vehicles, and we are confident the additional step we announced on June 29 will help further diminish those concerns,” says Lyons.