〔本報訊〕自2009年起，日本豐田汽車（Toyota）因旗下多款汽車的加速踏板出現故障以及暴衝等問題，全球召回1200萬輛車，但據美國交通部 （Transportation Department）最終調查報告指出，豐田汽車的電子操縱系統並無異常，可能是因駕駛人的駕駛不當才釀成車禍，因此召回事件的調查暫告一段落。
經過10個月的調查後，美國交通部長拉胡德（Ray LaHood）於當地時間昨日的新聞發表會上表示，美國太空總署（NASA）的工程師認為，豐田汽車的電子操縱系統沒有存在缺陷，因此與車輛突然暴衝等問 題並無直接關係，目前美國政府針對豐田的召回汽車事件也暫告一段落。
FEBRUARY 9, 2011
U.S. Probe Cites Driver, Mechanical Errors
By JOSH MITCHELL, MIKE RAMSEY And CHESTER DAWSON
Federal highway safety officials on Tuesday absolved the electronics in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles for unintended acceleration, and said driver error was to blame for most of the incidents.
The findings of a 10-month-long study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration identified three main causes for sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus models. Two of them—sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that trapped the throttle in an open position—were the subject of a series of Toyota recalls.
The third and most common problem was drivers hitting the gas when they thought they were hitting the brake, which the NHTSA called "pedal misapplication."
Timeline: Toyota Probe
See how investigations into Toyota's vehicles unfolded.
The report came as Toyota said its profit fell 39% in the December-ended quarter, as the yen's persistent strength and a slip in sales in Japan weighed on its bottom line.
Its sales have been stung by the recalls, and continued worries about its vehicles have Toyota fighting to maintain its title as the world's largest car maker by unit sales.
At a Congressional hearing last year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had suggested that consumers should stop driving their Toyotas. On Tuesday, he said: "We feel that Toyotas are safe to drive."
In addition to Toyota, the report is a boon for the rest of the auto industry, because it could blunt efforts by plaintiffs' lawyers, safety advocates and lawmakers to attack the safety of electronic systems widely used in the auto industry.
Electronically controlled throttle, braking, steering, safety and vehicle stability systems are critical to modern vehicles—especially hybrid and electric cars. Auto makers have increasingly used computer-controlled electronic systems to replace mechanical connections to save weight, improve fuel economy and enable advanced safety systems such as automatic braking.
"It does appear that this study, which was conducted by America's top scientists and engineers, should reassure the driving public that many of the more 'mediagenic' claims had no merit," said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing most of the major auto makers in the U.S. market. "We're pleased that this detailed report can be reassuring to consumers, and is similar to the extensive internal research and testing auto makers already do."
The exhaustive study should help Toyota fend off hundreds of lawsuits under litigation in federal court that blame unintended acceleration for accidents and could improve the company's quality image.
But critics contend the report didn't go far enough.
"Right now, we don't have any explanation for many of the problems, so what good did the investigation do?" said Sean Kane, whose Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. led much of the early research into electronics as a potential cause of problems.
Joan Claybrook, the president emeritus for Public Citizen, a consumer safety group that has been critical of Toyota, said the results of the government study weren't convincing.
"I think it's a failure of evaluation because there are so many cases where there was no problem with the floormat and it was clear the vehicle had runaway on its own," said Ms. Claybrook, also a former NHTSA secretary. "It has to be some vehicle related malfunction. The failure to find that is a failure of analysis."
But government officials said the evidence points to mechanical and driver problems. "Toyota's problems were mechanical, not electronic," Mr. LaHood said Tuesday.
NASA's lead engineer, Michael Kirsch, said an electronics failure couldn't be entirely ruled out. But it would be incredibly unlikely, he said, because it would require the simultaneous failure of two different systems, and would have left evidence in a car's computer system.
"We hope this important study will help put to rest unsupported speculation about Toyota's [electronic throttle control system], which is well-designed and well-tested to ensure that a real world, uncommanded acceleration of the vehicle cannot occur," said Steve St. Angelo, the U.S. quality chief for Toyota.
In the few cases of prolonged, uncontrolled acceleration, NHTSA said slipping floor mats that trapped the gas pedal were likely the cause.
The agency had already fined Toyota $49 million for being slow to report known problems related other mechanical problems, including floor mats and sticky pedals.
The NASA/NHTSA study highlighted a delicate issue for auto makers and regulators: The vast majority of sudden acceleration incidents studied were determined to be the result of driver mistakes. The NHTSA said it will continue to study measures aimed at reducing the risks of unintended acceleration caused by drivers mistaking one pedal for another.
David Strickland, NHTSA's chief, said the agency is considering whether to require advanced technology, including brake-override systems and "black box" event-data recorders, in all passenger cars without legislative order.
NHTSA said it will also evaluate how to make cars with so-called keyless entry, or push-button start systems, easier to turn off, and will study the design of accelerator and brake pedals to learn whether redesigning pedals will make mistakes less common.
The auto industry in December fended off proposed House legislation that would have added a host of new vehicle-safety requirements that were born out of Toyota's problems.
The news came the same day the Toyota City, Japan-based company reported lower profit than a year ago as sales in Japan slipped and the yen's strength cut its profits on exports.
It posted a profit of 93.63 billion yen ($1.14 billion) in the three months ended Dec. 30, down from 153.22 billion yen in the same period a year earlier.
However, the Japanese car maker was upbeat about its outlook for its full fiscal year ending in March, raising its profit projection to 490 billion yen from 350 billion yen owing to strong overseas sales and extensive cost-cutting.
"The fact that we were able to raise our forecast indicates that our cost-cutting efforts have exceeded our own expectations," Toyota senior managing director Takahiko Ijichi said. "We think that shows we're back on the road to recovery."
Toyota's incentive spending rose by a third in 2010, according to research website Edmunds.com, and the auto maker still lost two percentage points of U.S. market share.
It held the top spot for sales direct to consumers.
"I was leaning toward the Honda Accord," said Abdul Farukhi, 27, who bought a new Camry in late December. "It looked just as good as the Camry and didn't have this baggage with the accelerator, and I was a little concerned about the resale value down the road. But the incentives were just too good on the Camry and that tipped it in their favor,"
Toyota executives have predicted that it will regain lost market share in the U.S. this year with a host of new products, including a redesigned Camry and RAV4, which are two of its most popular models.
Toyota has raised its full-year profit outlook for three straight quarters, from an initial estimate of 310 billion yen in May. The revised number for the year ending in March is still far below that of rival Honda Motor Co., which expects a 530 billion yen profit for this fiscal year, but above that of Nissan Motor Co.'s 270 billion yen estimate. Nissan reports its latest earnings on Wednesday.
The upward revision is the latest indication that the strong local currency isn't as big a threat to profitability as initially feared by Japan's auto industry. A stronger yen eats into profits Japanese car makers earn overseas when repatriated and makes made-in-Japan vehicles less price-competitive abroad.
For Toyota, home is where it hurts most. Whereas the auto maker expects to increase overseas production by 7% from a year earlier to 4.36 million vehicles by March 31, it sees domestic production falling 1.4% to 3.16 million vehicles.
The company's exposure to Japan, where it dominates nearly half the market, has become a major drag on profitability amid shrinking Japanese demand for cars and Toyota's commitment to maintaining a domestic production base of at least three million vehicles a year.
A surge in the yen over the past year has made it difficult for Toyota to export more cars, which would lessen the slack in domestic production capacity. Akio Toyoda, the company's president and grandson of the company's founder, has indicated that the auto maker cannot profitably export compact cars when the yen stands at less than 90 yen to the dollar.
While sales volume fell in three of its largest markets—Europe, Japan and North America—during the three months from October, profits rose in all markets except Japan.
For the full year, Toyota expects sales to be flat or higher in all markets including Japan, where the rebates had helped boost sales until their cut-off in September. In particular, the company pointed to high demand for its cars in emerging markets as far afield as South Africa and Thailand—which Mr. Ijichi called a pillar of the company's future growth strategy.
To cope with the strong yen and weak domestic sales, Toyota is trying to extract more profits where it's most competitive. "We are trying to raise prices selectively, sell more higher profit margin vehicles and produce more in the markets where our sales are growing fastest," Mr. Ijichi explained.
In the quarter ended December, Toyota's revenue declined 12% to 4.673 trillion yen from 5.293 trillion yen and operating profit sagged 48% to 99.07 yen from 189.11 billion yen.
Toyota's earnings projection for this fiscal year is based on the company's expected average yen rate for the year of 86 yen to the dollar and 112 yen to the euro.