Feds Not So Sure About Toyota's Claims That Floor Mats Are The Problem With Priuses

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a statement yesterday indicating that problems of unintended acceleration in Toyotas might be caused by something more than faulty floor mats.

The statement from the federal agency was a response to Toyota's claims, released on Tuesday, that "no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver's floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured."

The NHTSA release said that Toyota "inaccurately stated NHTSA had reached a conclusion," adding:

Safety is the number one priority for NHTSA and this is why officials are working with Toyota to find the right way to fix this very dangerous problem. The matter is not closed until Toyota has effectively addressed the defect by providing a suitable vehicle based solution.

The Houston Press reported on problems of unintended acceleration in the Toyota Prius in an April cover story, and at that time, Toyota had already warned Prius owners about faulty floor mats but hadn't admitted to any design flaws. Furthermore, a Toyota spokesman told the Press that the problem was probably simple driver error.

"You get these customers that say, 'I stood on the brake with all my might and the car just kept on accelerating,'" the spokesman said. "People are so under stress right now, people have so much on their minds. With pagers and cell phones and IM, people are just so busy with kids and family and boyfriends and girlfriends. So, you're driving along and the next thing you know you're two miles down the road and you don't remember driving, because you're thinking about something else."

But things worsened for Toyota in August after a Lexus -- made by Toyota -- crashed in California, killing four people including a California Highway Patrol officer and a 13-year-old girl. A dramatic 911 call made from inside the car revealed that the Lexus was accelerating out of control and the driver couldn't stop the car.

Toyota issued a recall of 3.8 million cars after that crash, blaming the problem of unintended acceleration on the floor mats. Now it appears there could be something more.

"It will go beyond redesigning a floor mat," NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana told Hair Balls today. "We expect that they'll be coming up with something soon."

Hair Balls contacted Toyota but hasn't gotten a response. 

Update: Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons e-mailed us a statement regarding these new developments.

It was never our intention to mislead or provide inaccurate information. Toyota agrees with NHTSA's position that the removal of the floor mats is an interim measure and that further vehicle-based action is required. We are in the process of developing vehicle-based remedies to help avoid the potential for an incompatible or unsecured driver's floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position.

A vehicle-based remedy, Lyons told us, means "mechanical changes to the vehicle."

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