Toyota Recall Recap: Floormats, Sticky Pedals, AND User Error

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Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Let's recap.

After 18 months, recalls totaling 9 million Toyota, Lexus, and Pontiac models, and investigations by Toyota, Congress, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) unit ... what have we learned?

(1) A few accelerator pedals did stick open, for one of two very different reasons.

First, some dealers or owners fitted unapproved floor mats that were too thick, which could prevent the accelerator from returning to its usual position.

In the case of the horrifying and highly publicized crash of a Lexus that sped along a California freeway before overturning, burning, and killing all four occupants, a trapped accelerator pedal is thought to have been compounded by the driver not knowing how to turn off the engine in a car with a push-button start.

Loose all-weather floor mat jams accelerator pedal. Photo: NHTSA

Loose all-weather floor mat jams accelerator pedal. Photo: NHTSA

(The answer: Hold down the "Start" button for a full 3 seconds. Hardly obvious without reading the owner's manual, which few people do for their own car, let alone the dealership loaner that crashed.)

Solution: Toyota amputated the bottoms of low-hanging pedals in some models, leaving clearance for even the thickest floor mats to be used without interfering with reshaped, shorter pedals.

Second, some other accelerator pedal mechanisms stuck under specific temperature and humidity conditions, remaining at about 15 percent of full throttle because moisture prevented a smooth return action.

2004 Toyota Prius accelerator pedal after being shortened as part of sudden-acceleration recall

2004 Toyota Prius accelerator pedal after being shortened as part of sudden-acceleration recall

Enlarge Photo

It got complicated: Only pedal assemblies made by CTS, one of two parts suppliers, suffered from the issue. So Toyota [NYSE:TM] first had to sort out which cars got parts from which supplier.

Solution: Starting in February 2010, Toyota installed a steel reinforcement bar on models using pedals supplied by CTS (a different set of cars from those on the amputation list). The bar kept the mechanism away from the position where it could stick.

(For more information, see our summary, Toyota And Lexus Recall: Everything You Need To Know, which gives details on the two separate recalls to address accelerator issues.)

(2) Investigators found no "electronic gremlins" in Toyota's vehicle or engine control software.

This was the big fear, raised repeatedly by plaintiff lawyers and on the floor of Congress. Math is hard, software is confusing, and computerized cars are scary. The lack of technical knowledge among elected officials didn't help either.

Toyota retrofit fix for sticky-throttle recall

Toyota retrofit fix for sticky-throttle recall

Enlarge Photo

But investigators could not replicate a single so-called "sudden acceleration" event once floor-mat and sticky-pedal causes were eliminated.

They pored through hundreds of thousands of lines of code seeking anomalies, unaddressed use cases, or any other problem that might make a car careen suddenly forward.

They even subjected Toyotas to high levels of electromagnetic interference, to see if systems weren't properly shielded. Nothing changed.

The full NHTSA report wasn't released by the DoT until this Tuesday, but as early as last August, the agency sent signals it had concluded that no electronic faults existed.

(3) Drivers who swear their car accelerated out of control are often wrong.

You put your foot on the brake, but instead of slowing, your car accelerates. The harder you brake, the faster it speeds up. Must be "sudden acceleration," right?

Well, no.

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Comments (10)
  1. Hurrah for the electronics!
    I guess that the electronic systems have come of age; this is good to know when your whole car is just electronics as is the case in an EV.

  2. The advice in the article might be dangerous. For a accelerating Prius, the driver should shift into neutral which responds almost immediately. Turning off the engine with the power button does work, but you have to wait 3 seconds and I think it locks up the steering.
    Unfortunately, the Prius shifter is a little strange. You have to hold the shifter in the neutral position for something like 0.5 seconds. Just flicking it into neutral for a moment is not good enough.
    Perhaps every Prius owner should try this just to become familiar with this process.

  3. I had a 2005 Avalon and on two occasions after kicking down to pass, the TRANSMISSION failed to kick back into high gear, hanging on to the lower gear, so any throttle input caused the engine to rev madly and for vehicle to surge forward. I am lower than the demographics described in this article and I know the brake from the gas pedal. This problem together with a very hesitant and inconsistent throttle response made the vehicle dangerous to drive. I got rid of it after 6 months.
    There IS a problem here. I know from personal experience.

  4. In five years of driving my 2006 Prius I have never experienced any strangeness in the acceleration. Also, on my 2004 Toyota Corolla, I have not experienced any strangeness in the accelerator.
    However, on the Prius, the ABS can be a little strange when braking firmly and going over a bump at the same time. For a 1/4 of a second the brake stops working. I guess this is normal for ABS, but it scares me when it happens.

  5. Responding to By Al about "I had a 2005 Avalon and on two occasions after kicking down to pass, the TRANSMISSION failed to kick back into high gear, hanging on to the lower gear, so any throttle input caused the engine to rev madly and for vehicle to surge forward." I would suspect that your 2005 Avalon was NOT a full drive by wire vehicle so it was harder for the computer to sense an error condition and deal with it gracefully and safely. For all the talk of concerns with phantom electronic gremlins, I believe that most experts would tell you it is easier to make a fail safe system with a full drive by wire vehicle instead of one with a old-style throttle cables and downshift linkages. As part of its control software, the computer can constantly search for unusual error conditions and then more easily react to them. For example: If Brake AND GAS pedals pressed, then idle engine. It is difficult for a computer to override a mechanically stuck throttle cable. Additionally, full black box event data recording might be less expensive (hence more broadly implemented) with a full drive by wire vehicle to track and debug potential problems.

  6. John, you wrote a very complete and concise summary of the entire debacle. The only thing I would add to the unfortunate Lexus ES350 accident that killed 4 people was that for some strange reason, the driver (a police officer) did not realize that all he had to do was push the shifter lever into neutral.. instead of trying to drive at high speed with one hand with the gas pedal stuck from carpet entrapment while talking 911 with the other hand.
    My wife drives the exact same car so I investigated this incident in depth..reading the NHTSA report.. trying actions out on my wife's car to train her/us.
    Yes, the start/stop button takes an amount of time that would definitely seem long and would be a major distraction if a driver has a 280HP engine revving out of control taking you to harrowing speeds.. but everyone should simply be trained to SHIFT INTO NEUTRAL if you don't know what else to do.

  7. Shifting any car into neutral in the case of unexpected acceleration always seemed to me to be the best option.

  8. Really? It's not obvious how to turn the car off without reading the manual? If it's a loaner, I'm sure the dealer explained how to turn the car OFF. What does everyone with a push button car do? Leave it running when they exit the vehicle????

  9. @David: While the car is in gear and moving at speed, the procedure for turning off the engine is different (hold down Start button for 3 seconds) than it is when the car is standing still and in park (push Start button once). Because it was a loaner from the dealer, it's more than plausible that the dealership never explained this particular wrinkle--since it's a situation that almost no one encounters. And while it may surprise you, many people never read their owner's manuals.

  10. Saw this kinda late but quit picking on old farts like me. The sticky pedals were a minor issue and sticking mats were worse than in other brands. But it does not make sense that Toyota has older people hit the wrong pedal in Toyotas significantly more more than in other brands.
    Get off it and back to more likely cause NASA couldn't find - they reported:
    "Our detailed study can't say it's impossible...." "Due to system complexity ... and the many possible electronic software and hardware systems interactions, it is not realistic to prove that the ETCSi cannot cause UAs.... Therefore, absence of proof that the ETCSi caused a UA does not vindicate the system."

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