Toyota's Safety Problems: A Checkered History By Katy Steinmetz
TIME Magazine, Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2010
For decades, Toyota and U.S. government agencies have been negotiating over a growing list of safety issues. Here is a history of major events pertaining to Toyota's acceleration-related problems.
September 1986: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government body in charge of keeping the roads safe, orders its first recall of Toyota cars because of "speed control" problems, according to the NHTSA database (though defects with the two 1982 models involved were related to faulty cruise control). A second investigation into sudden-acceleration dangers with Toyota vehicles takes place this year.
April 2003: Toyota internally deals with an "unwanted acceleration" incident that occurred during production testing of the Sienna. It determines the cause to be a missing clip that allowed the trim panel to trap the accelerator pedal. In the aftermath, Toyota concludes that it was an "isolated incident," according to the NHTSA report. Five years later, Toyota would inform the NHTSA about this incident when that administration makes a blanket information request. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)
March-July 2004: The NHTSA conducts what would be the first of many defect investigations regarding speed-control problems, all of which would lead to the current furor (partially about Toyota and the NHTSA's neglecting to pay attention to the abnormal number of investigations). The first three investigations primarily involve the Camry, Solara and Lexus ES models. The initial case is opened after an owner petitions the NHTSA in February to look into speed-control issues; it is closed when the NHTSA fails to find a "defect trend."
August 2005–January 2006: The NHTSA conducts a second evaluation after Jordan Ziprin, a Camry owner, reports "inappropriate and uncontrollable vehicle accelerations." In a subsequent questionnaire sent out to owners, hundreds of people report problems with acceleration and braking, but the NHTSA determines that their concerns are of "ambiguous significance" given the variety of defects described. Based on this sense of inconclusiveness, the administration denies Ziprin's petition for further investigate into the 19 Camry and Lexus models that are potentially involved. (See the top 10 product recalls.)
September 2006–April 2007: The NHTSA conducts a third evaluation after William B. Jeffers III, another Camry owner, petitions the administration to investigate the multiple "engine surging" incidents that he has experienced. The NHTSA fails to identify any problems after reviewing the complaint and road-testing the petitioner's vehicle. It cites the need to best allocate limited administration resources as the reason for denying the petition.
March 2007: The NHTSA begins a fourth investigation into uncontrollable-acceleration problems with Lexus vehicles. In its preliminary evaluation, it suspects the floor mat to be the culprit.
July 2007: Troy Edwin Johnson is killed when a Camry accelerating out of control hits his car at approximately 120 m.p.h. The driver had been unable to slow the car for 23 miles leading up to the crash. Toyota eventually settles out of court with Johnson's family for an undisclosed amount.
August 2007: The NHTSA upgrades the investigation to an "engineering analysis," meaning it will do full-fledged vehicle testing instead of just reviewing complaints or single vehicles and crunching questionnaire numbers as it had done in the past. This leads to a floor-mat recall of the Camry and Lexus models in September. The NHTSA believes that 55,000 units may be affected.
January 2008–August 2008: The NHTSA denies the petition of a Toyota Tacoma owner who has asked the agency to investigate the unwanted sudden acceleration he experienced. It finds the possibility of a defect to be "quite limited."
April 2008–January 2009: Another investigation, regarding the Sienna, overlaps with the Tacoma petition review for four months. This one gets bumped up to an engineering analysis, which leads to a recall of Siennas. In the event that the clip securing the floor-carpet cover is missing, the NHTSA report reads, the accelerator pedal can become stuck. It is the same problem that had been noticed and dismissed by Toyota in 2003.
April 2009: The NHTSA receives another petition, this one to investigate throttle-control problems unrelated to floor-mat issues in Lexus ES vehicles.
August 2009: An off-duty highway patrolman and his family are killed when they rent a Lexus ES350 and have a runaway crash. The NHTSA and the California Highway Patrol investigate the incident and believe the floor mat snagged the pedal, causing the uncontrollable acceleration.
October 2009: Toyota recalls 3.8 million vehicles on the grounds that floor mats can trap the pedals. Despite reportedly suspecting problems with pedal design following the Lexus crash, the NHTSA denies the petition made in April; in its report, the administration says "the only defect trend" is the floor-mat problem, and since Toyota already issued a recall, the "contentions that any further investigation is necessary are unsupported."
November 2009: Toyota publicly apologizes to the NHTSA after reporting that the administration found that "no defect exists." Even when closing the book on a complaint, the NHTSA includes a disclaimer in each report explaining that its determination not to look into an issue doesn't constitute a finding that there's definitely no safety-related defect.
December 2009: NHTSA officials go to Japan to discuss the recall process. A press release from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's office states that the "NHTSA indicates that it expects improvement in [Toyota's] responsiveness in the future."
Jan. 16, 2010: Toyota informs the NHTSA that the pedals themselves have a dangerous "sticky" habit. It's not just the floor mats, after all.
Jan. 19, 2010: The NHTSA meets with Toyota in Washington to discuss the sticking-pedal business, and Toyota calls the administration later that day to announce its plans for a wider recall.
Jan. 21, 2010: Toyota recalls approximately 2.3 million more vehicles because of sticking pedals.
Jan. 26, 2010: Toyota stops selling eight models as part of the recall, which leads to thousands of losses in unit sales.
Jan. 27, 2010: Toyota announces the recall of an additional 1.1 million vehicles because of pedal-entrapment problems.
Feb. 3, 2010: Toyota announces worries about brakes in Prius models. As of Feb. 4, 458 complaints would be filed on the NHTSA's website regarding the 2010 Toyota Prius. By Feb. 8, there would be 1,310 complaints. (The 2010 Honda Insight, by comparison, has just two.)
Also on this day, Secretary LaHood lets slip instructions for Toyota owners to "stop driving." He later says he misspoke, but not before Toyota's stock takes a blow. He also says the government had to pressure Toyota before the company would take care of the recall-related problems.
Feb. 4, 2010: Toyota announces antilock problems as the source of brake issues with the Prius.
Feb. 9, 2010: Toyota announces that it will recall 437,000 hybrid cars worldwide, including the Prius, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, the Sai and the Lexus HS250h, to fix a problem with the brake systems. Toyota executives suggest that the recall is voluntary.
Feb. 10, 2010: Toyota's North American president, Yoshi Inaba, is set to testify with other company bigwigs about Toyota's safety record at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. LaHood has said civil penalties are a strong possibility.