A US government probe cleared Toyota Motor Corp’s electronics of causing unintended acceleration, a big victory for the world’s top automaker as it seeks to recover from the hit it took over runaway vehicle accidents.
The findings vindicated Toyota’s position that it had identified and fixed the only known safety problems with popular vehicles like the Camry by focusing on mechanical issues with accelerator pedals and the risk that floormats could trap the pedal in the open position.
“There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas,” US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement on Tuesday.
Toyota’s US-traded shares closed 4 percent higher, buoyed by the government findings and its smaller-than-expected decline in quarterly earnings as well as higher sales forecast.
The probe by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA engineers followed questions by some safety advocates and lawmakers about whether software-driven throttles and flaws with electronics control systems had also played a role in unintended acceleration complaints.
Investigators concluded that most reports of runaway acceleration could be explained by driver error.
“What mostly likely happened was pedal misapplication. The driver stepped on the gas instead of the brake, or in addition to the brake,” said Ronald Medford, deputy administrator at the traffic safety agency.
Steve St Angelo, a Toyota executive tasked with shoring up quality after last year’s recalls, said the automaker hoped the study would “put to rest unsupported speculation” about the safety of Toyota’s electronics.
“We believe this rigorous scientific analysis by some of America’s foremost engineers should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles,” he said in a statement.
LaHood, who had touched off a panic a year ago by urging Toyota owners with concerns to stop driving them, offered a blanket endorsement on Tuesday.
“We feel Toyota vehicles are safe to drive,” LaHood said, adding that he recommended to his daughter that she buy a Sienna minivan after she sought his opinion.
Although Toyota has cleared a major hurdle in its ongoing safety saga, analysts cautioned that it would still struggle to win back US consumers who have defected from the brand and its luxury counterpart Lexus.
“This is certainly going to help Toyota, but it doesn’t change the fact that they let these other issues through,” TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said. “They’re still going to face difficulties to bring people back to Toyota.”
Toyota has recalled nearly 16 million vehicles globally since September 2009, when it took the first in a series of measures to fix problems with sticky accelerator pedals and potentially dangerous floormats.
The massive recalls in 2009 and last year rocked Toyota to its foundations and saw president Akio Toyoda come to Washington a year ago to tell US lawmakers he was “deeply sorry.”
The automaker has also paid nearly US$50 million in penalties to the US over the timeliness of its recalls, including the floor mat and “sticky pedal” cases.
US safety regulators said they would consider imposing requirements for all vehicles to have brake override systems that automatically counteract any instances of unintended acceleration.
They also said they would consider researching pedal design and placement.