Still questions on Toyota acceleration incidents

A casual reading of recent headlines about the Toyota unintended-acceleration probe might lead to a premature conclusion: that, aside from the acknowledged problems of misplaced floor mats and sticky gas pedals, the only other cause of these crashes was driver error.

That may be true in some or even all of the cases, but the investigation is still under way, with help from the National Academy of Sciences and NASA.   A report to Congress, made public yesterday by the Department of Transportation (click here to read it), is hardly conclusive.

The report described findings from 58 accidents in vehicles equipped with so-called "event data recorders" - devices that are often compared to the "black boxes" crucial to plane-crash inquiries but that in autos are nonstandardized and much more rudimentary.

What did the data show? Here's what the DOT told Congress about the early findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

The limited research completed so far has not led to the identification of safety defects other than sticking gas pedals or pedal entrapment, but NHTSA and NASA are continuing to study whether there are potential electronic or software defects in these vehicles.

Of the 58 cases studied, thirty-five recorders showed that no brake was applied. Fourteen cases involved partial braking: nine cases where brakes were applied late in the crash sequence; three involving early braking; and two involving mid-event braking. One incident involved a case of pedal entrapment. Another showed that both the brake and the gas pedal were depressed. In one case the recorder only contained information related to a separate incident and in another, NHTSA is still working to resolve inconclusive data from an EDR. In five cases, the EDR was not triggered at all.

At this early point in its investigation, NHTSA officials have drawn no conclusions about additional causes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas beyond the two defects already known – pedal entrapment and sticking gas pedals.

Today's New York Times report, headline "Early U.S. Tests Find No Toyota Flaw in Electronics," quotes Toyota as making a more measured statement:

“Having conducted more than 4,000 on-site vehicle inspections, in no case have we found electronic throttle controls to be a cause of unintended acceleration,” Toyota said in a statement. “Toyota is committed to listening more attentively to our customers and continuing to investigate unintended acceleration concerns.”

The report also quotes outside experts and analysts who doubted the significance of the preliminary findings.  One was B. Craig Hutson, an analyst with the research firm Gimme Credit, who the Times says told his clients:

We would not expect an investigation of the E.D.R.’s to find a problem with Toyota’s electronics systems. The E.D.R.’s are not designed to identify these types of problems. An electronics problem likely lurks in the millions of lines of software code found in a typical vehicle.

Hutson's warning is a reason to remain skeptical until studies by the National Academy of Sciences and NASA are complete. Until then, it still reasonable to wonder whether at least some very small fraction of these cases may involve either the electronics or software in Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control system - as Clarence Ditlow reminded me recently when I asked about earlier reports of findings from the event-data recorders.

Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, says one statistic is enough to fuel his remaining skepticism: that sudden-unintended-acceleration complaints rose four-fold "every time Toyota installed ETC in a vehicle without changing the human factors."

So stay tuned.