The Los Angeles Times analyzed public records on runaway Lexus and Toyota autos, and reports that the malfunction that killed the San Diego-area family may have been far more serious than a floor mat jammed on a gas pedal.
The newspaper quotes experts who say that the keyless ignition, automatic transmission controls, and computerized gas throttle controls combine to make millions of Toyota and Lexus cars susceptible to a stuck gas pedal that overwhelms brakes, making it impossible for even a trained Highway Patrol officer to save his family's lives as their car sped at 120 mph.
"This is Toyota's Firestone," concluded Sean Kane, a Massachussetts auto safety consultant to The Times, referring to defective radial tires that caused a series of fatal crashes.
Lexus is the high-end brand name for cars built by Toyota. And Toyota's chief executive Akio Toyoda has apologized publicly for the wreck, indicating how serious the company views the matter.
"Customers bought our cars because they thought they were the safest," Toyoda said.
"But now we have given them cause for grave concern. I can't begin to express my remorse."
Mark Saylor was driving his wife, daughter and brother in law to the girl's soccer practice Aug. 28 when the in-law called 911 to report the car was hurtling up a La Mesa freeway, its throttle stuck. "We're in trouble ... there's no brakes," said Chris Lastrella.
The car went down a ramp and into an intersection, and the 911 system recorded screams as the Lexus hit another car and went down an embankment.
Toyota has blamed the stuck gas pedal on floor mats, and ordered the recall of 3.8 million cars dating back to 2004. But experts interviewed by The Times say there may have been other factors as well:
-- The Lexus sedan was equipped with an automatic transmission control that mimics old-fashioned manual shifters, making it difficult for a driver to shift to neutral while the car is moving.
-- The power assist brakes rely on a vacuum that diminishes as the engine revs faster, reducing the braking assistance to near zero if the engine is roaring.
-- The manual brakes are unable to stop a 272-horsepower engine getting an open throttle and moving 120 mph.
-- The keyless ignition system requires a driver to hold a dashboard button down for three seconds to turn the engine off, a fact that is disclosed in the vehicle manual but may not be obvious to a motorist.
And perhaps most-damning, the car's computers do not reduce gas flow to the engine when the brakes are applied.
The Times reports that the combination of design features may have been so impossible for a driver that even a 19-year CHP veteran could not regain control of the Lexus, which had been lent to the family while Saylor's wife's Lexus was in for service at a dealership.
The brakes on the doomed Lexus near San Diego were reportedly on fire as he car hurtled up the freeway.
The San Diego County sheriff's department and CHP are still investigating the August wreck that killed Saylor, his wife Cleofe Lastrella, 13-year-old daughter Mahala, and the brother in law, Chris Lastrella.
"I don't think you can stop a car going 120 mph and an engine at full throttle without power assist," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, in an interview with The Times. A driver would have to exert 225 pounds of pressure on the foot pedal to generate enough force to engage the brakes.
The Times quoted experts who said the obvious remedy for shutting off the engine -- turning the car off -- was not apparent to a driver not well-versed in the three-second button push maneuver mentioned in the owners manual.
And shifting the gears to neutral may have been difficult, had the driver even thought if it, due to the configuration of the shifter, the newspaper reported.
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