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Feds Clear Toyota On Throttle Issues; Steering Issue Remains?

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2010 Toyota Avalon

2010 Toyota Avalon

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Toyota—and Toyota owners—can breathe a little easier with a finding from the federal government released today.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said, in a preliminary finding, that it could find no evidence of a problem with electronic throttle controls or electronic failure in Toyota Motor Corp. (Toyota, Lexus, or Scion) vehicles, and suggested that driver error had been to blame in many of those cases.

NHTSA found that the brakes hadn't been applied in at least 35 of the 58 crashes that had been attributed to unintended acceleration.

More Toyota owners mistook the brake for the accelerator?
The finding is yet another argument in favor of Toyota's assertion—that there aren't any safety-critical flaws in its 'by-wire' throttle systems or in its engine controls, and that drivers simply pressed the accelerator instead of the brake.

However, last year Consumer Reports found that, through its own analysis of safety complaints, that Toyota vehicles had a disproportionately high number of unintended-acceleration reports. While the automaker held a 16-percent U.S. market share, 41 percent of all such complaints involved Toyotas.
The new announcement, largely exonerating Toyota from broader issues with its electronic throttles, shouldn't be confused with the automaker's two broad safety recalls from this past year—one relating to accelerators becoming stuck in floor mats, and the other relating to a potentially sticky pedal mechanism. Beyond those mechanical issues, the probe was looking into accusations that the automaker may have issues with interference issues with its electronic throttles, which have been used for most of a decade on most of its vehicles.

Toyota renews commitment to safety, quality

Curiously, the announcement comes just after a twitter chat and blog post from Toyota chief quality officer Steve St. Angelo, who explained that it's part of his job to maintain a direct line on quality to global president Akio Toyoda.

"We’re listening closely to our customers and taking quick, decisive actions to enasure that their vehicles are safe," he said. St. Angelo pointed out that for the automaker, recalls are "an integral part of our commitment to standing by our products and being responsive to our customers."

Angelo says that Toyota already has two of many new field quality offices open at this point, with the remainder of them set to open over the next 12 months.

This year, Toyota has deployed so-called Swift Market Analysis Response Team (SMART) members to look at individual cases of unintended acceleration and other potential recall issues. And it's gotten back to basics with a re-emphasis of the Toyota Production System, allowing a worker to stop the production line for an issue.

"If we determine that there's even the slightest safety concern with our cars on the road, we're not hesitating to address it—sometimes on the basis of just a handful of complaints."

St. Angelo also cited Detroit News figures, projecting that the industry is on track to recall more than 20 million vehicles this year, with 300 recall campaigns announced just in the first six months of the year (among all automakers).

2010 Toyota Corolla

2010 Toyota Corolla

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Steering recall looms?

However, Toyota's recall worries don't altogether end with today's announcement. In addition to a recent recall of more than 400,000 vehicles in the U.S. for steering issues, Toyota has been widely criticized in recent weeks for not issuing a formal recall for another ongoing steering issue, being investigated with a federal defect probe, that affects Toyota Corolla and Matrix models. The automaker has so far called the problem a "customer satisfaction issue," yet it is offering free repairs for the issue.

Beginning last month, Toyota began offering a fix for the issue, which affects 749,685 Toyota Corolla and Matrix models, but it hasn't considered it a safety concern. The fix includes a new control unit that provides an "alternative steering feel."

[Bloomberg; Detroit News]

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