$1 Million Prize For Anyone To Prove Cause of Toyota's Runaway Cars

Toyota Hearings Likely To Spur Major Changes to US Auto Regulation

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$1 Million Prize For Anyone To Prove Cause of Toyota's Runaway Cars

Toyota executives, including Toyota's Executive Vice President responsible for quality control across Toyota, Shinichi Sasaki, testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation yesterday.

Quoting from the Washington Post, Toyota's chief engineer Takeshi Uchiyamada said, "I want to be absolutely clear: As a result of our extensive testing, we do not believe sudden unintended acceleration because of a defect in our [electronic throttle control system] has ever happened."

However, Toyota has not been able to explain to US lawmakers' satisfaction why Toyota's vehicles apparently are prone to sudden unintended acceleration. In a Los Angeles Times article today, some owners are still complaining about uncommanded acceleration even after taking their cars to Toyota dealerships for the required fixes. Some Toyota Camry owners are also asking why their cars are not included in the recall given the number of complaints about similar problems.

Trying to shed more light on the cause of sudden acceleration, Edmunds.com (which "lists new car prices, used car prices, car comparisons, car buying advice, car ratings, car values, auto leasing") is offering $1 million to anyone who, under controlled conditions, can "re-create unintended acceleration in a car and then solve that problem and prove the whole thing" to the company, its CEO announced yesterday. The LA Times reports that the competition will begin next month after the details are worked out.

Edmunds denies it is a publicity stunt, and promises any information discovered will be made publicly available.

Toyota as well as all auto manufacturers, will likely be required by the US government in the near future to install brake override systems in their vehicles. This doesn't, of course, "solve" the SUA problem, but it does provide some level of risk mitigation against it.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator David Strickland in response to criticism of its actions in regard to the recall, said that the agency hadn't seen any noticeable up-tick in unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Quoting from a story in The Detroit News, he said that, "If you look at it on a per capita basis ... their actual comparison to the rest of the fleet was actually unremarkable.... They had the same percentage of sudden acceleration issues as other manufacturers. They just had more of them because they have more cars."

This New York Times story implies NHTSA isn't also looking for them, either, at least in regard to the Toyota Camry.

This story in the Globe and Mail noted that NHTSA had 119 employees involved in enforcement in 1980 when there were 146 million vehicles on the road; today it has only 57 while the number of vehicles has grown to 256 million. NHTSA will likely see its budget increased to hire more.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and chair of the Senate Committee said, according to the Post, that "Toyota should be forced to install brake-override systems on all Toyota vehicles currently in the United States, regardless of how old they are or how much the process will cost."

In addition, Sen. Rockefeller wants to require all auto manufacturers to provide dealers with the necessary hardware and software to read a vehicle's event data recorder or "black box." Federal law requires this to occur by 1 September 2012, but Rockefeller apparently wants manufacturers to meet that requirement much sooner.

One major complaint against Toyota was that they had only one proprietary device in the US that can read the data from these recorders in their vehicles. Last week, the company announced that it was going to be shipping hundreds to the US and making them commercially available. As recently as December, Toyota had maintained that the device reader in the US was only "a prototype."

Sen. Rockefeller has been a very staunch supporter of Toyota in the past, and such a statement indicates how disturbed many US lawmakers are of Toyota's actions.

Other automotive manufacturers have been reticent about highlighting directly Toyota's problems in their advertising. One reason is that they too are recalling hundreds of thousands of cars, and figure that while Toyota is under intense scrutiny, they'd better disclose their bad news as much under the radar as possible. According to NHTSA, there have been 41 vehicle recalls issued in February.

A slight ray of good news for Toyota is that 60% of those surveyed in the US still think Toyota vehicles are safe.

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