Doubt cast on Toyota’s decision to blame sudden acceleration on gas pedal defect

Toyota Motor Corp.'s decision to blame its widening sudden-acceleration problem on a gas pedal defect came under attack Friday, with the pedal manufacturer flatly denying that its products were at fault.

Federal vehicle safety records reviewed by The Times also cast doubt on Toyota’s claims that sticky gas pedals were a significant factor in the growing reports of runaway vehicles. Of more than 2,000 motorist complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the last decade, just 5% blamed a sticking gas pedal, the analysis found.

What’s more, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has conducted eight investigations into sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles over the last seven years, none of which identified a sticking pedal as a potential cause.

“The way the sudden-acceleration problems are occurring in reported incidents doesn’t comport with how this sticky pedal is described,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, Mass., auto safety consulting firm. “We know this recall is a red herring.”

Sudden-acceleration events in Toyota and Lexus vehicles have been blamed for at least 19 fatalities and 815 vehicle crashes since 1999.

Toyota last fall blamed the episodes on floor mats that entrapped the gas pedals, leading to a massive recall. Then last week Toyota said sticking gas pedals were also causing sudden acceleration by not springing back into idle position, triggering another recall.

On Tuesday, the automaker stopped sales and production of eight models until it could remedy the problem.

Independent auto safety experts have been skeptical of Toyota’s explanations, saying floor mats and sticky gas pedals can’t fully explain the large number of complaints that have been mounting for the last decade, covering some of the most popular models in the company’s lineup, including the Camry.

That argument was given more weight Friday when the manufacturer of the suspect pedals insisted its products had been unfairly blamed.

CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind., said in a statement that it had “deep concern that there is widespread confusion and incorrect information” about its products linked to the sudden-acceleration issue.

“The problem of sudden unintended acceleration has been reported to have existed in some Lexus vehicles and Toyota vehicles going back to 1999, when CTS did not even make this product for any customer,” the company said.

Toyota began using CTS-made pedals in the 2005 model year.

On Jan. 21, Toyota told federal regulators that CTS pedals were susceptible to moisture and could stick, forcing the recall of 2.3 million cars and trucks. CTS acknowledged that a tiny number of pedals had a rare condition that could cause a slow return to idle position, but it denied that this condition could cause unintended acceleration and said that it knew of no accidents or injuries caused by the issue.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said the company had no comment on CTS’ statement.

Another Toyota spokesman, Mike Michels, said in an e-mail that the company had identified the pedal problem as “abnormal friction in the pedal pivot mechanism” and that the automaker hoped to announce a remedy soon.

Toyota has honored CTS three times since 2005 for the quality and efficiency of its work, citing the fact that the supplier “exceeded quality expectations” and achieved “100 percent on-time delivery and for shipping accelerator pedal modules with zero defects.”

The automaker also uses pedals supplied by Denso Corp., a Japanese company with North American headquarters in suburban Detroit, but has said those do not appear to be defective.

However, the Times review of federal safety records shows several instances of complaints of stuck pedals on vehicles built in Japan, which Toyota has said are not subject to the recall. For example, one complaint, filed two years ago, told of a 2007 Japanese-built Camry in Maryland with a pedal that “stuck to the floor.”

A wide group of national automotive experts say there is strong evidence that a hidden electronic problem must account for at least some, if not most, of the Toyota sudden-acceleration events.

The 19 sudden-acceleration deaths involving Toyota vehicles are more than those that have occurred in vehicles from all other automakers combined, according to figures provided to The Times by NHTSA.

The Times has previously reported that consumer complaints of unintended acceleration surged in the years after the automaker introduced electronic throttles, by fivefold in some cases.

The electronic throttle system uses sensors, microprocessors and electric motors, rather than a traditional link such as a steel cable, to connect the driver’s foot to the engine.

In recent interviews, two former NHTSA administrators, Ricardo Martinez and Joan Claybrook, have said they believe that some kind of electronic glitch may be causing the Toyota problems. Similar conclusions are being drawn by independent automotive safety experts, forensic mechanics and automotive electronics researchers, as well as many consumers.

In its review, The Times examined NHTSA data for all reports from Toyota drivers of gas pedals sticking since 1999, excluding those reports that blamed floor mats for trapping the pedal. That yielded 116 complaints about the gas pedals. Overall, there were 2,152 complaints categorized as vehicle speed control, which includes sudden acceleration.

Of the complaints about sticking pedals identified by The Times, only one resulted in a fatality. But that vehicle, a 2003 Camry, contained a pedal assembly that was not manufactured by CTS.

In fact, of 11 injuries reported to NHTSA in complaints that alleged stuck pedals, only one -- a 2008 Camry Hybrid that ran into a tree in Minnesota last October -- was in a vehicle included in the current recall, The Times found.

NHTSA officials, as well as officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation, have said they have exhaustively investigated Toyota’s problems and found no evidence that any electronic defect exists in the company’s electronic throttle system.

“The agency looks into all possible defects with these vehicles,” a NHTSA public affairs representative said Friday.

But some motorists don’t believe NHTSA’s and Toyota’s explanations.

Jeffrey Pepski, a financial consultant in suburban Minneapolis, said his Lexus ES350 accelerated to 80 miles per hour on a freeway in the Twin Cities last year. At one point, Pepski said, he hooked his toe under the pedal to pull it up. It was not stuck and the floor mat was not interfering with the pedal, he said. That did not solve the problem, he said.

Pepski said he described his actions to NHTSA investigators and a Toyota expert, and they didn’t believe him. In October, NHTSA closed an investigation prompted by a defect petition filed by Pepski without taking action. Pepski traded in the vehicle to a Toyota dealer.

Kevin Haggerty, a New Jersey volunteer firefighter, said his 2007 Avalon accelerated out of control last month, the second time it had happened. By shifting back and forth into neutral, he was able to drive the car to a Toyota dealer, who he said was unable to pinpoint a problem.

Haggerty said dealership technicians could not find anything obstructing the pedal, but they replaced the pedal, electronic components and the engine throttle system.

He said they could not explain what specifically had caused the engine to accelerate on its own. But last week a Toyota spokesman told The Times that Haggerty’s problem did in fact stem from the pedal.

“I don’t feel safe in the car,” Haggerty said. “I never felt comfortable that they knew what the problem was.”

Haggerty still has the vehicle.