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Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration Timeline

A Brief Review:

Toyota has come under fire in recent years due to the frequency of sudden unintended acceleration incidents in their car models. Although complaints and reports were files against Toyota's cars, Toyota willfully mislead the public to believe that they were unaware of any problems with their cars and that many of the incidents were due to driver error. It was eventually discovered that Toyota knew about their unintended acceleration problems and did nothing to fix them or warn the drivers of the affected cars. Toyota went through multiple court cases for wrongful death and loss of car value cases, and in 2012, ended up paying more than a billion dollars in a class action suit against them by drivers of Toyota and Lexus cars. Toyota was also forced to pay a fine of $1.2 billion to the Department of Justice for their deceptive practices. The following is a breakdown of the history of the Toyota scandal:

1. The First Incidents:

There have been scattered reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles as early as 1992, when a '92 4Runner accelerated out of control on a winding road. It was noted in the crash report that the car was on cruise control at about 40mph when it started accelerating. The brakes were not effective and the car flipped over after being driven up an embankment to avoid a cliff.

Starting in 2002, a huge influx of complaints started coming in regarding Toyota car engines surging when the brake pedals were depressed, specifically on the 2002 Camry model. 2 examples of incidents include Maria Cafua, who died due to injury complications when her Camry accelerated across 3 lanes in Wilmington, Massachusetts, and George and Maureen Yago, who were killed when their car accelerated in a parking structure and flew off a ledge. Later Camry models also seemed to have a major problem with unintended acceleration. Juanita Grossman of Evansville, Indiana, was driving her 2003 Camry when it suddenly accelerated across the street and into a jewelry store. Juanita's feet were both jamming down the brake pedal when she was recovered from the car. She later succumbed to her injuries.

In 2003, Peter Boddaert, a 1996 Lexus LS 400 owner, experienced SUA and reported his multiple incidents to the NHTSA. He petitioned them to analyze the Lexus 1997-2000 Lexus 300 and 400 models. This petition, however, was denied due to the NHTSA reporting that there were no data showing that Toyota or Lexus vehicles have any more frequent SUA incidents than other car makes. Carol Mathews owned a 2002 Lexus ES300 that malfunctioned and accelerated multiple times, and she also petitioned the NHTSA to investigate Lexus vehicles. This time an investigation was opened, but was closed within 4 months, citing a lack of evidence of a defect. Meanwhile, Toyota had been updating its service bulletins to warn its dealerships about a surging issue seemingly unrelated to the SUA incidents, and also changed the shape of their 2004 Sienna trim panels, problems with which had occasionally resulted in an unintended acceleration incident. Toyota at this time also denied that any defects existed, and that the electronic control systm "cannot fail in ways its engineers have not already perceived." Many other petitions were made to investigate the issue, but few of them had any effect at all.

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2. Petitions and Investigations:

NHTSA Petitions and Investigations

The following are a list of the petitions presented to the NHTSA to investigate unintended acceleration, and the status of each of those petitions and investigations.

The NHTSA Action Number which acts as a name for each defect investigation is given a prefix to notate what stage of investigation the file is in.

  • DP or RP: Defect Petition or Recall Petition - A petition has been filed to launch an investigation into a defective car.
  • PE: Preliminary Evaluation - Reports of consumer complaints suggest that a defect exists and the NHTSA needs to find out more.
  • EA: Engineering Analysis - If further examination of a safety defect is warranted, a EA determines if a recall should be made.
  • RQ: Recall Query - The NHTSA determines that a vehicle must be recalled and sets the scope of the recall.

Click to expand any investigation to see the summary

Name: DP03-003 Type: Defect Petition
Date Opened: April 23, 2003 Date Closed: September 22, 2003
Result: Petition Denied
Purpose: Petition submitted to analyze 1997-2000 Lexus 300 and 400 models for 'problems of vehicle Speed Control linkages which result in sudden, unexpected excessive acceleration...'
Summary: Petition Denied - "No evidence that Lexus vehicles are experiencing vehicle speed control-related problems more frequently than their peers."
Name: DP04-003 Type: Defect Petition
Date Opened: February 17, 2004 Date Closed: March 5, 2004
Result: Investigation PE04-021 Opened
Purpose: To investgate the malfunctioning of the 2002-2003 Lexus ES300 Throttle Control Systems which may lead to unintended acceleration.
Summary: Several complaints were made about the ES300 model in question, and it was discovered that this model shared the same throttle control system as the Camry and Solara models. A subsequent investigation was opened to look into the reported issues.
Name: PE04-021 Type: Investigation: Preliminary Evaluation
Date Opened: March 3, 2004 Date Closed: July 22, 2004
Result: Investigation closed citing no defect trend found.
Purpose: To investgate the malfunctioning of the newly included throttle control systems in the Lexus ES300 and Toyota Camry and Solara models.
Summary: The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) reviewed 113 Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) and 36 Toyota car owners reports but "found nothing abnormal in the pedal configuration of the subject vehicles." They closed the investigation citing that "a defect trend [had] not been identified at [that] time," but that the "closing of the investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist."
Name: DP05-002 Type: Defect Petition
Date Opened: August 5, 2005 Date Closed: January 5, 2006
Result: Petition denied due to lack of evidence of a defect.
Purpose: To launch an investigation into the malfunctioning throttle control systems and brake systems in the 2002-2005 Camry, Solara, and ES models.
Summary: "ODI has not identified any vehicle-based cause to explain the reports, or uncovered any evidence to indicate that a throttle control system failure occurred. Therefore, the reports have ambiguous significance and do not constitute a basis on which any further investigative action is warranted."
Name: DP06-003 Type: Defect Petition
Date Opened: September 4, 2006 Date Closed: April 3, 2007
Result: Petition denied due to lack of evidence of a defect.
Purpose: To launch an investigation into the malfunctioning throttle control systems and brake systems in the 2002-2006 Camry models.
Summary: This petition addresses only engine surging for 1-2 seconds during which the brakes can be applied to slow the vehicle. Toyota technical documents however note that the "loss of throttle control due to a component or system failure would be detected within a one second period after which engine power would be limited," meaning that unexpected engine surging would be caught and corrected by the vehicle automatically, and that the NHTSA would be unlikely to issue a recall over this were an investigation to be opened. Therefore, the pedition was denied.
Name: PE07-016 Type: Investigation: Preliminary Evaluation
Date Opened: March 29, 2007 Date Closed: August 8, 2007
Result: Investigation Upgraded to Engineering Analysis.
Purpose: To investigate the unwanted acceleration over long periods of time in Lexus ES350 models.
Summary: Many reports were made claiming that drivers experienced unwanted acceleration up to speeds over 90mph after pressing the accelerator and taking their foot off the pedal. Braking reduced the cars acceleration but did not stop it, and further braking led to depleting the braking systems' power. The majority of incidents reported were found to involve an unsecured all weather floor mat, and Toyota agreed that "some of the alleged incidents are likely related to improper installation of the driver side all weather floor mat resulting in interference with accelerator pedal movement." Toyota sends out a precautionary notice to owners of these cars and changes the labeling of the mats. The investigation is upgrated to an engineering analysis to "further investigate [the] issue and to assess the actions taken by Toyota." The file is upgraded to EA07-010.
Name: EA07-010 Type: Investigation: Engineering Analysis
Date Opened: August 8, 2007 Date Closed: October 11, 2007
Result: Investigation Closed with Toyota Floor Mat Recall.
Purpose: To determine how to address the problems of unwanted acceleration caused by improperly installed floor mats.
Summary: Toyota indicates that they will conduct a safety recall to replace the all weather mats that were causing unwanted acceleration. Since they could not determine which cars had all-weather mats installed, Toyota will send out a letter to all registered vehicle owners (approx. 55,000) and replace their older mats with newer, safer versions.
Name: DP08-001 Type: Defect Petition
Date Opened: January 31, 2008 Date Closed: August 27, 2008
Result: Petition denied due to lack of information.
Purpose: To determine if there is a defect related to the electronically actuated throttle control system.
Summary: Many complaints cited did not involve the throttle control system. For those that did, there was no cause determined for the throttle system failure. Since there is very little information suggesting that there is a defect in the throttle control system, the petition is denied.
Name: PE08-025 Type: Investigation - Preliminary Evaluation
Date Opened: April 10, 2008 Date Closed: August 8, 2008
Result: Investigation upgraded to Engineering Analysis
Purpose: To determine if a recall is necessary for missing retaining clips that can cause unwanted acceleration on 2004 Toyota Siennas.
Summary: The problem of a trim panel coming loose and initiating unwanted acceleration was already known to Toyota, but they had determined it to be an isolated incident. The NHTSA is revisitng this defect and upgrading this investigation to Engineering Analysis so that they can determine how many other subject vehicles have issues with the retaining clip and trim panel.
Name: EA08-014 Type: Investigation - Engineering Analysis
Date Opened: August 8, 2008 Date Closed: January 26, 2009
Result: Investigation closed with recall to replace carpet cover and retention clip.
Purpose: To recall and fix cars that still have issues with a trim panel retention clip coming undone and the trim interfering with the gas pedal.
Summary: ODI found multiple instances of trim panel interference in the 2004 Siennas, some of which occured after service was performed on the cars that required the trim panels to be removed. Toyota announced that they would recall the subject vehicles and that the dealers will replace the original floor carpet cover and the retention clip at no cost. The recall will be conducted as a safety improvement campaign.
Name: RQ10-003 Type: Investigation - Recall Query
Date Opened: February 16, 2010 Date Closed: March 1, 2011
Result: Recalls made to numberous additional car models.
Purpose: To determine whether additional vehicles needed to be recalled in addition to Toyota recalls: 07E-082, 09V-388, 10V-017, and 10V-023.
Summary: This recall query added an additional 2.2 million vehicles including Toyota Highlanders, RAV4s, and 4Runners, and Lexus RX330s, RX350s, RX400s, LX570s, and GS300s. These recalls were made to replace car components that had the danger of causing pedal entrapment. No recalls were made regarding any electronic causes of unintended acceleration per a study conducted by NASA on the behalf of NHTSA that revealed no results regarding the possibility of an electronic defect.

Despite many investigations into factors that were causing unintended acceleration, the NHTSA was unable to find evidence of car components contributing to unintended acceleration until 2007, and a large scale recall of cars was issued from 2009-2011. Despite an investigation into the Toyota Unintended Acceleration problem by NASA, there were still no findings of any electronic defects in the Toyota vehicles, and it began to look like pedal entrapment by floor mats and panel trim was the main culprit of sudden unintended acceleration incidents.

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3. Floor Mat Recalls:

One of the first major Toyota recalls of this period was not prompted by an investigation, but ended up setting the stage for more recalls to come. This was recall 6LD-60F, involving the 2004-2005 Lexus RX330s and the 2006 RX400H, as well as the 2004-2006 Toyota Highlander - approximately 367,000 units overall. This recall was filed on July 24, 2006, and was intended to replace 2 retaining clips that kept the drivers side carpet cover in place, which could come loose and interfere with the gas pedal. It is worth noting that this recall was found by Toyota and dealt with it on their own accord.

The Saylor Accident

For a few years, there was relatively little discussion over SUA. Incidents still happened sporatically and defect petitions were made to investigate other Toyota cars, but for the most part all was quiet. This changed on August 28, 2009, when a catastrophic crash would bring the issue of unintended acceleration back into the spotlight. The most prominent included CHP officer Mark Saylor and his family, in a 2009 Lexus ES350. Saylor and his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law had begun speeding out of control in Southern California, and had called 911 for help. On the recorded call, which went viral on TV news and the internet, you can hear the caller saying that the brakes did not work and that they were in trouble. The call ends with a scream as the car crashes off an embankment, killing everyone inside the car. Investigators would later find that the car, which was a loaner from a dealership, had been driven earlier in the week and had the same problem. The driver, Frank Bernard, had accelerated to get in front of a truck that was merging onto the freeway, and when he took his foot off the accelerator, the car kept going on its own, a speed of 80-85mph. Bernard said that he was able to use the brakes to slow to 50-60 MPH, but that he had to put the car in neutral to get it to slow any more than that. After he guided the car to the side of the road, he saw that the accelerator pedal had become wedged into the floor mat below. Bernard mentioned this problem to the receptionist at the dealership, but no action was taken.

The Recall Scramble

This accident and the frequency of other similar accidents sparked a scramble with Toyota to make sure that problems with all-weather mats were fixed. The recall 07E-082 was filed on September 26th, 2009, and recalled 2007-2008 Camrys and 2007-2008 ES350s for their all-weather mats that had the potential to block the accelerator pedal from returning to its' fully closed position. In their disclosure letter to the NHTSA, Toyota adamantly writes that neither the vehicles nor the all-weather mats "contain a safety-related defect," but that they would conduct a "voluntary safety campaign to replace all of the aforementioned [all-weather floor mats] with a redesigned one."

More floor mat and pedal entrapment recalls followed, including 09V-388 on December 31, 2009, and 10V-017 on February 5, 2010, which dealt with the possibility of condensation interfering with pedal operations and leading to a stuck gas pedal. These two recalls along with 10V-023 on March 30, 2010, recalled a total of about 8 million vehicles. Another estimated 2 million vehicles were recalled at the completion of recall query RQ10-003, which required 3 more recalls 11V-112, 11V-113, and 11V-115.

The Root Cause

At this point, Toyota alleged that the root cause of sudden acceleration was dealt with, in an attempt to save the company's reputation and to gain back any trust that they had lost from their customers. This would later be considered to be misleading the public with false information, as Toyota had made plans to provide for a minimum clearance of 10 millimeters between the all-weather mats and a fully depressed gas pedal, but had not implemented those plans and had still produced cars with a dangerous potential for the gas pedal to get stuck on the mats. Toyota had also not recalled all of the vehicles that had similar design features to the ones recalled for floor mat entrapment, namely the Corolla, the Highlander, and the Venza.

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4. The Truth Comes Out:

In 2010, freelance translator Betsy Benjaminson was assigned to review and translate 1,500 documents from Toyota regarding SUA, when she found that Toyota was hiding information regarding car defects, and even lying about it to the NHTSA regulators and the United States Congress. In 2013, Benjaminson released a personal statement on her facebook page, claiming that she found documents with evidence that "Toyota's press releases [were] bland reassurances obviously meant to help maintain public belief in the safety of Toyota’s cars—despite providing no evidence to support those reassurances." In addition to this, Benjaminson stated that "Toyota’s engineers... were searching for UA’s root causes, but they could not seem to find them", and that they would sometimes admit that the root cause "was the electronic parts, the engine computer, the software, or interference by radio waves." This evidence directly contradicted the statements that Toyota made saying that ther was no defect in the electronic throttle control system (ETCS). Benjaminson's complete personal statement was released in April 2013, and can be found here.

Benjaminson posted her personal statement when she decided to go public with her findings and name herself as the primary whistleblower behind the condemning Toyota internal documents. At the same time, David Hechler interviewed Benjaminson and wrote the article Lost in Translation, which reveals some of the contents of the leaked Toyota documents, including Toyota senior staff saying "I can't completely take care of the pedal problem." There was even a document that showed numerous errors found within the ETCS when testing, although they were assumed to have been errors that were corrected before production. Regardless, it gave proof that the ETCS could fail dramatically, despite Toyota engineers claiming that it wasn't possible.

A Flawed NASA Study

Hechler also wrote about a joint NHTSA and NASA study, which was created to test the ETCS but didn't find any evidence of a defect. The final report was delivered in February 2011, in which the Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood said, "The jury is back. The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas, period." This statement was widely reported and called for the public to start trusting Toyota again, as the report blamed most of the reported incidents of SUA on driver error. In reality, this test was not without its own set of problems. Hechler writes that "some of the scientists on this team wouldn't sign NASA's final report," due to the unusual nature of study - in which the team was told to ignore electronics failures that did not specifically match criteria set for them. The team was given 10 months to figure out "why certain cars had failed, but they were given no access to those that actually had." Thus, LaHood's blanketing statement of blessing for the ETCS did not sit right with many of the NASA scientists, who objected that NASA's final statement saying that there was "no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large unintended accelerations,” did not mean that there was no defects to be found.

The Barr Group, an independent company specializing in auto firmware, was hired to conduct another investigation for the Bookout v Toyota Motor Corp case, which was an unintended acceleration case that settled in late 2013. The result of the investigation was a 800-page document that claimed to find bugs in the Toyota ETCS that could lead to unintended acceleration. Michael Barr, founder of the Barr Group, noted that they "did a few things that NASA apparently did not have time to do," and that they "uncovered gaps and defects in the throttle fail safes." Barr went on to claim that there were many "mistakes in the Toyota analysis that NASA relied on," and that the cars' black boxes "can record false information about the drivers actions in the final seconds before a crash." The Bookout case settled for 3 million dollars in favor of Jean Bookout, who was injured, and the family of Barbara Schwarz, who was killed in the SUA crash.

Fees and Settlements

By The end of 2013, Toyota had paid billions of dollars for issues related to unintended acceleration.

  • In April 2010, the DOT issued a $16.4 million penalty against Toyota for hiding a sticky pedal problem in their cars and waiting 4 months to report it.
  • In December 2010, Toyota paid $32.4 million in civil penalties for the way it handled floor mat recalls and for not notifying the NHTSA about a steering defect.
  • In November 2012, Toyota paid $25.5 million to its shareholders who lost value in their stock due to Toyota's recalls.
  • In December 2012, Toyota again paid a $17.35 million fine for failing to report a safety defect in a timely manner.
  • At the same time, Toyota settled a class action lawsuit for $1.2-1.6 billion dollars. This suit was brought against them by Toyota drivers who felt that their car had lost value as a result of the recent UA problems.
In addition to the Bookout case, Toyota had by this time settled hundreds of personal injury cases having to do with SUA with confidential settlements, but the worst was not over yet.

A large price to pay

On March 19th, 2014, the Department of Justice levied a $1.2 billion financial penalty against Toyota for lying to NHTSA regulators and the US congress, and for willfully misleading the US public about the status of their cars and the Unintended Acceleration problem. Toyota was given such a high penalty because they had claimed that the root cause of sudden acceleration was dealt with, but had knowingly not recalled all of the cars that had the defect. In addition, just weeks before this statement, Toyota had "taken steps to hide from NHTSA another type of unintended acceleration in its vehicles... a problem with accelerators getting stuck at partially depressed levels," according to a statement by the DOJ. This landmark fine was the largest of its kind to be imposed on an automotive company. Preet Bharara, one of the US attorneys assessing the fine, commented that "the entire auto industry should take notice", as "Toyota stands charged with a criminal offense because it cared more about savings than safety and more about its own brand and bottom line than the truth."

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5. SUA Today:

Sudden Acceleration today is still an issue. In late 2014, another defect petition was submitted to the NHTSA to investigate low speed surging in Toyota Corollas, but the petition was denied. No further studies have been conducted into potential errors in the ETCS that have turned up any more evidence to prove that unintended acceleration can be an electronic issue. However, there are many that still think it is a big problem. Betsy Benjaminson still maintains a blog about Toyota's potential defects and you can read her thoughts there. Hopefully after billions of dollars in fines, Toyota has learned its' lesson and is ready to gain its' customers' trust back. If you or someone you know has been involved in a sudden unintended acceleration accident, give Bisnar Chase a call! We've taken the fight to automakers before and we have the experience and resources to fight for those who cant fight for themselves.

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