Five months after the nation was gripped with fears about Prius brakes failing to engage and runaway hybrids flying out of control, federal investigators said Tuesday that driver error—not electronics—is to blame in a majority of safety cases they probed.
The preliminary findings were presented at a briefing of House Energy and Commerce Committee members, conducted by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s David Strickland.
Representatives of the NHTSA told members of Congress that brakes were simply not applied in 35 of the 58 cases they reviewed. The findings are based on black box data taken from vehicles.
Toyota said its own findings show that after “more than 4,000 on-site vehicle inspections, in no case have we found electronic throttle controls to be a cause of unintended acceleration.” Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including 6 million in the United States, for sudden acceleration issues.
The government results are not final or definitive, and critics are not convinced that the problem is resolved. Nonetheless, if further investigations continue to point to driver error rather than technical glitches, then it begs the question: What caused all the uproar?
Conspiracy Theorists, Start Your Engines
While it’s certain that at least a few accidents occurred and people were injured, the full story of Toyota’s safety issues, from late 2009 through early 2010, is waiting to be told. Many theories come up at the company watercooloer or in casual dinner conversation: Did bankrupt U.S. car companies have a hand in knocking down Toyota’s previously stellar safety record? Did autoworker unions fan the flames? Why did media organizations run headlines and broadcast stories before investigating the most outlandish stories, like the San Diego Prius runaway in March? Is the public’s insatiable appetite for 24/7 sensationalism at the heart of the problem?
It’s doubtful that we’ll ever hear the full story, if it could ever be told with all its psycho-social complexities. Again, the investigations exonerating Toyota are only preliminary. (And certainly Toyota fumbled on its handling of the problem.) Yet, the damage is done to the Toyota’s brand, which had come to mean safe and green cars.
This, along with its reluctance to embrace plug-in technology, have leveled the playing field for the other major global automakers to step in with the most advanced high-tech eco-friendly car technologies. At the same time, the situation probably had some role in Toyota’s decision to team up with Tesla to produce electric cars.
The crises has created opportunities. That might be the only silver lining in the dark cloud of controversy.