New 'Runaway Toyota' Case Tests DOJ's Integrity
MADISON, Wis. — Just as the memory of Toyota's unintended acceleration cases began to fade, at least in the minds of the media and a few million thus far unaffected Toyota owners, in comes Robert Ruginis to dredge it all up again.
Ruginis is now asking the NHTSA to investigate "low-speed surging in the 2006-2010 Toyota Corolla with ETCS-i, in which the brakes fail to stop the vehicle in time to prevent a crash," according to the petition letter he filed Thursday.
In a move that could make the matter more high-profile, Ruginis is taking the matter to the lawyer designated as "independent monitor" as part of Toyota's deferred prosecution agreement with the government over the automaker's handling of unintended-acceleration claims.
In his letter to David Kelley, the independent monitor, Ruginis wrote:
I am writing to inform you that Toyota Motor North America may already have broken the terms of the March 2014 deferred prosecution agreement by making misleading statements and concealing information on a safety issue related to unintended acceleration. I request that you investigate my case.
To recap, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion earlier this year, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice. Toyota recalled 8.1 million cars, but says no cause was ever found except floor mats that can trap acceleration pedals and drivers who hit the accelerator when they thought they were pushing the brake.
The experience Ruginis and his wife have had with their Corolla -- bought new in May 2010 -- tells a very different story.
In a letter Ruginis wrote to NHTSA, he noted: "The MY2010 Corolla was subject to the floor mat entrapment and sticky accelerator recalls. The dealership applied the 'sticky pedal' remedy in February, before we purchased the vehicle. The floor mat remedy was applied in November 2010."
The Ruginis family's troubles with their new Corolla began almost immediately after they bought it.
In an interview with EE Times, Ruginis explained that he returned the car to the dealer twice before his wife crashed into another car in a parking lot in June this year. Both times, Toyota technicians claimed there was nothing wrong with the car.
As he told a story of the accident on June 8, 2014 in his petition letter to NHTSA, Ruginis wrote:
At the time of the crash, a sunny, temperate afternoon, my wife, Kathleen Ruginis, was making a slow, right hand turn to ease into a parking space on High Street in Bristol, Rhode Island. Her foot was on the brake, when the vehicle surged forward and crashed into an unoccupied parked Jeep in front of it. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Enough smoking gun
Having already complained twice, Robert and Kathleen Ruginis realized this crash was not an isolated incident.
After the crash, Ruginis got in touch with Sean Kane, a well-known auto-safety expert. Kane, of Safety Research & Strategies, found 164 complaints from NHTSA's files that appear to relate to similar problems in Toyotas.
Kane told EE Times that the Ruginis case is "stunning" for several reasons.
First is Ruginis's background. Now an independent consultant focused on consumer electronics, he spent 35 years working on embedded systems. His experience ranged from a position at "Chrysler working on new engine control systems to Milton Bradley's Advanced R&D creating new electronic toys and games, to Raytheon working on Navy sonar and acoustic systems, to Hasbro creating an electronic engineering group to support the complete electronic product cycle from advanced R&D to production," according to Ruginis. In short, Kane thinks that a man who has spent his career with embedded systems ought to know when an embedded system goes haywire.
Second, noted Kane, Kathleen Ruginis's statements have been very clear and consistent. They are verified by a passenger in the car at the time of the crash.
Finally, a readout of the vehicle's Event Data Recorder (EDR) "is consistent to a 'T' to Kathleen's statements," according to Kane.
Kane sees "enough smoking gun" here to make this case "a real standout."
EDR readout in question
It's important to note, however, that EDR data isn't conclusive proof, as Kane explains. The EDR used in cars is not the same quality of so-called black boxes used in aviation. As Ruginis himself pointed out in his petition letter, "We are fortunate, because many parking lot crashes do not generate enough force to activate the EDR, and others produce inconclusive EDR results."
The EDR investigation report whose copy Ruginis received from Bosch, the EDR reader's manufacturer, illustrates what happened in the car going back five seconds before the crash.
The EDR readout shows that at the moment the airbag module made the decision whether to deploy (about the time of the impact), voltage going to the accelerator pedal was 0.78 (at idle), the brake was engaged, yet both the speed of the vehicle and engine RPM doubled in less than two seconds.
How different parties — NHTSA, Toyota and Ruginis — interpreted the EDR readouts (although Toyota initially simply ignored the data) has become the bone of contention, prompting Ruginis to file the petition to NHTSA and write to the independent monitor.
As Ruginis saw the EDR data, he explained to EE Times:
Our car was going 3.7mph the engine speed was 800RPM, the accelerator was not being pressed, the brake was not pressed and the Jeep was 14.78 feet away (my calculation of distance)
1.8 seconds later the car was going 7.5mph the engine speed was 1600RPM, the accelerator was not pressed, and the brake was pressed when the collision occurred
How could anyone anticipate that your vehicle speed will double in less than 1.8 seconds if you are not pressing the accelerator?
NHTSA, which did not originally agree with the interpretation above, issued a statement saying it will review Ruginis’ letter, after the petition was filed, according to Kane.
In its initial response to Ruginis’ request, Toyota made no reference to the EDR readout. The company wrote a dismissive letter, noting they didn’t find anything wrong with either the accelerator pedal or the brake.
The accelerator pedal was thoroughly inspected and found to move smoothly with no restrictions or binding. There was no interference or obstruction found with the operation of the accelerator pedal. When the accelerator pedal was released it would always return to the idle position. The brake components were in good condition with no damage or leaks. The floor mat was properly anchored. The vehicle was test driven for 16 miles, at various speeds and road conditions with several accelerating and braking maneuvers being conducted and all systems performed properly with no unusual or unexpected reactions observed.
When Ruginis subsequently followed up with Toyota, questioning why Toyota’s report had disregarded the EDR readout, Toyota simply wrote back:
Based on our inspection of your vehicle it has been determined the incident was not the result of any type of manufacturing or design defect.
Toyota’s failure to address the EDR readout triggered Ruginis’ petition to NHTSA and his contact with the independent monitor.
Curiously, after the petition letter was filed, Toyota “discovered” the EDR readout. It issued a statement Thursday saying, "The vehicle's Event Data Recorder (EDR) conclusively demonstrates that the brake pedal was not depressed until less than 0.8 of a second before impact."
The statement further said: "Toyota also thoroughly inspected and test drove Mrs. Ruginis' vehicle, which revealed no issues, and was unable to duplicate the phenomenon described. This data supports our conclusion that this was not a sudden unintended acceleration event but a collision that resulted from late braking, which is not unique to drivers of Toyota vehicles."
In a nutshell, Toyota is falling back on a familiar alibi: driver error.
Kane noted the paradox that Toyota, which at first overlooked the EDR readout, later interpreted the EDR data to blame the crash on the driver’s depressing the brake pedal too late to avoid the accident.
“You can’t cherry pick the data like that,” Kane said, “using it when it is convenient to them, and ignoring it when it was inconvenient.”
According to Ruginis, David Kelly, the independent monitor, has agreed to a meeting next Wednesday. Stating that a monitor is “to ensure that Toyota is accurately depicting safety and ethics of what they are doing,” Kane said that this will be Kelly’s first test as a watchdog.
Kane was not optimistic. “We will know that the independent monitor’s position is just legal window-dressing.”
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times
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