Today, Toyota announced that they will pay $1.1 billion to settle the numerous lawsuits alleging “unintended acceleration” where their vehicle’s throttles jammed open. Toyota will create a fund for additional retrofitting of 3.2 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles with technology to make them easier to stop in panic situations as part of the agreement. For models that cannot be retrofitted, there will be monetary payouts to the vehicle’s owners or former owners. A Toyota spokesperson has stated that the company believes they have shown that the majority of unintended acceleration cases were due to floor mats that had jammed under the accelerator pedals and not because of electronic defects in the vehicle’s engine computers. A jammed floor mat will not necessarily make a vehicle go faster, but it can make it hard to stop because it keeps moving even when one’s foot is off the accelerator. Toyota’s spokesperson stated that Toyota has defended the safety of their product and this settlement is a business decision.
This settlement has been achieved three years after the fatal crash of a Lexus that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family near San Diego. At first, Toyota said only floor mats could become trapped under acceleration pedals which gave drivers the impression that their cars were trying to run away on them. Then, Toyota issued a series of recalls involving millions of cars, including one for potentially defective accelerator assemblies. Toyota executives attended congressional hearings regarding these issues.
Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fined Toyota $17.35 million for waiting too long to report the issue that led to one of the recalls, the recall for the 2010 Lexus RX 350 and Lexus 450h SUVs because the floor mat could get caught under the accelerator pedal. This is the largest fine allowed for one violation pursuant to NHTSA’s guidelines. According to federal law, automakers must “notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists or that the vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall,” says NHTSA in a release. NHTSA says Toyota took longer than five days. The Office of Defects Investigation noticed problems with the floor mat and accelerator pedal in early 2012 and contacted Toyota in May. Toyota recalled the vehicles about a month later, telling NHTSA it knew of 63 circumstances of accelerator pedals becoming tangled in the floor mat.
This is the fourth time NHTSA has fined Toyota and each of the four times, Toyota “did not admit any wrongdoing and said it was paying the fine to avoid a continued dispute with the safety agency,” writes The New York Times. The other fines totaled $48.8 million.