Toyota said Wednesday that its investigation of about 2,000 vehicles reported to experience sudden acceleration found evidence that sticking accelerator pedals and interference by floor mats -- the subjects of two big recalls -- did indeed cause some of the incidents.
It is the first time since the recalls that Toyota has acknowledged that its internal review, which is continuing, found sudden-acceleration complaints to be valid. The car maker did not disclose how many of the incidents had been caused by the sticky pedals and floor mats.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received about 3,000 complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and is conducting its own examination of them. The agency said in a statement Wednesday that it had reached "no conclusions" about the causes.
A Toyota spokesman, Mike Michels, said the company's investigation involved inspecting the vehicles and downloading data from onboard recorders if a crash occurred. Mr. Michels said the investigation found sticking accelerator pedals in a small number of vehicles and a larger number with floor mats that interfered with pedals.
He said none of the vehicles with a sticking pedal was involved in a crash, and he did not know how many of those identified as having problematic floor mats had crashed.
The Toyota review pointed to human error in most instances when a vehicle crashed while the driver was trying to brake, Mr. Michels said. Nearly all of the crashes in those instances resulted from "pedal misapplication," meaning the driver mistakenly pressed the accelerator instead of the brake, he said.
No evidence of malfunctioning electronic throttle systems has been found, Mr. Michels said.
"We're not implying that everything is driver error, absolutely not," he said. "But in instances where they reported having their foot on the brake pedal, there is very clear evidence that this is pedal misapplication."
The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, reported Tuesday that federal transportation officials had examined event data recorders from dozens of Toyota vehicles and had found open throttles and no evidence of braking. Some media outlets referred to the report as vindication of Toyota, whose supporters had argued that reports of the problems were overblown.
Sean Kane, the president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts consulting firm that is working with lawyers suing Toyota, said data recorders that did not show braking were "far from an exoneration of Toyota and its electronics."
Mr. Kane said that driver error was always assumed to be the cause of at least some of the complaints but that the recorders alone could not prove that a car did not accelerate on its own.
"You can't ignore the fact that when they move to an electronic throttle control you basically see a fourfold increase in complaints," Mr. Kane said. He also said the event data recorders rely "on the same sensing system that is unable to detect the failure to begin with," and is therefore not "an independent witness."
Toyota has recalled about 8.5 million vehicles worldwide since November to resolve the floor-mat interference and sticking pedal problems. Some vehicles are subject to both recalls. In issuing the recalls, Toyota acknowledged the problems, but it had not conducted as thorough a review of the complaints.
After the recalls were announced, regulators were flooded with more complaints from drivers who say their Toyota or Lexus accelerated suddenly, or from family members of crash victims alleging a defect was responsible.
The complaints attribute 93 deaths to sudden acceleration by one of the Japanese carmaker's vehicles. The government ordered Toyota to pay a record $16.4-million (U.S.) fine for waiting too long to initiate a recall after learning that its accelerator pedals contained a defect.
The NHTSA is working with the National Academy of Sciences and NASA to investigate causes of the sudden acceleration reports. The agency received 10 machines capable of interpreting Toyota's vehicles' data recorders from the car maker, but the recorders typically are activated only when the vehicle's air bag deploys.
Toyota has in various court cases argued against using data from the recorders as reliable sources of evidence. Mr. Michels acknowledged the technology to be "in development" but said it was "maturing" and did provide valuable information.
"What we're finding is that the EDR's information is consistent with everything else that is known or determined about the incident," he said.
The widespread attention given to Toyota's issues with sudden acceleration has prompted many of the affected vehicles' owners to have repairs performed more quickly than recalls are usually performed.
Mr. Michels said dealers had fixed nearly 80 per cent of the 2.3 million vehicles in the United States included in the sticking pedal recall and about half of the 5.4 million recalled for their floor mats. The car maker has yet to announce repair procedures for some of the models in the floor-mat recall, including the high-volume Corolla compact sedan.