By on August 28, 2013


After losing a motion to prevent him from appearing, Toyota Motor Corporation’s CEO for North America, Jim Lentz took the witness stand in a lawsuit filed by the survivors of a woman who was killed when her Camry allegedly sped out of control and hit a tree after it was hit by another car, whose driver is a co-defendant in the case. One issue in the court case is why Toyota did not equip Noriko Uno’s car with a brake override system that automatically closes the throttle when the brakes are applied.

Bloomberg reports that Lentz answered questions posed by the plaintiffs’ attorney in regard to how the company marketed the system when it did start making it available. Toyota branded the system as “smart stop”, apparently rejecting “safe stop”, according to internal Toyota documents plaintiffs obtained as part of the discovery process.

Lentz said that the reason why the company chose “smart” instead of “safe” was to avoid promising more than they could deliver. “I made clear to the marketing department that it had to be something that didn’t overpromise,” Lentz said. “Safe stop or sure stop was overpromising because it wouldn’t necessarily stop the acceleration in all cases.”

The Uno case is the first of about 85 personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits filed against Toyota in California courts regarding supposed unintended acceleration. The company has already settled an economic loss class action suit at a cost estimated to be $1.63 billion. That suit was about the value of used Toyotas declining due to the massive recalls the company initiated to address the issue.

Among other actions in the recall, Toyota installed brake override system software on the recalled models and started equipping all of its new production cars with the override system. The plaintiffs pointed out that Toyota had started installing the system on some of its European modes in the early 2000s and questioned Lentz on why it was not featured on its U.S. models. Lentz said that he only knew of one European Toyota that featured a brake override.

Also testifying Tuesday was an expert witness who testified that Uno was hospitalized for vomiting blood and being dizzy and light-headed on two separate occasions before her fatal accident. Toyota argues that Uno’s cognitive abilities were impaired by her diabetes and liver conditions. Before she hit the tree, following the initial collision with another car, she drove the wrong way down a one-way street.

Toyota has said Uno’s diabetes and liver conditions impaired her cognitive abilities and caused her to drive down a one-way residential street into oncoming traffic after being hit by another vehicle.

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26 Comments on “Toyota’s Jim Lentz Testifies in Unintended Acceleration Wrongful Death Suit...”

  • avatar

    Some of us want the throttle to work while brakes are being pressed to heel-toe.

  • avatar

    Bonus points to Lentz if he was able to incorporate some variation of, “Uno died because she didn’t understand how cars work” into his testimony.

  • avatar

    Dangerous legal path by Toyota. Every case that goes to trial, especially if they lose, just puts this old story back into the headlines.

    From a PR standpoint writing checks to make it go away would be much, much easier, and probably cheaper when you put a price on damaged perception.

    • 0 avatar

      I would imagine that they are taking this one to trial to get some leverage over the other case. Winning this one should be relatively easy based on the facts, if these cases can be won at all. As they have proof that the driver had more problems then just getting the gas/brake mixed up.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Have the prosecutors shown that the throttle was indeed jammed…or that the software commanded acceleration while the driver’s foot was off the accelerator?

    Methinks not…and given the choice, I’ll take the judgement of an engineer (a Japanese engineer, anyway) over ANY legal type here in litigation paradise.

    We all remember Audi.

  • avatar
    Sweet Fancy Moses

    As far as the lawsuit is concerned, reminds me of an anecdote a Chrysler engineer gave to start his talk a few years ago:
    “Ours is the only industry where we are expected to anticipate that a complete drunk will climb into our product, accelerate to speeds well above the posted limit, eat a sandwich while carrying on a phone conversation, plow into a crowd of pedestrians, hit a tree… and everyone will walk away unscathed.”

    Keep in mind I’m paraphrasing a bit and it was delivered to a room full of engineers, but it seems fitting.

  • avatar

    “Toyota installed brake override system software on the recalled models and started equipping all of its new production cars with the override system.”

    Is this correct? I didn’t think the brake override was retrofitted to older models.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe certain vehicles had the available hardware to do a retrofit via ECU update.

    • 0 avatar
      Nicholas Weaver

      I’d imagine MOST have the hardware to do this via ECU update: All it takes is for the ECU to accept an update and know the state of the brake pedal.

      Then its simply a matter of applying a limit-function to the power if the brakes are applied for more than a given period of time and a given level of effort.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, this is how it is done, via programming as the hardware is already in place on cars with electronic throttle control. Many other manufacturers including Ford have Brake Over Throttle strategies as well. It causes quite a fuss with two footed drivers.

        • 0 avatar

          Personally, I hope it causes a fuss with two footed drivers, because (based on the description of the system) if you get it to engage, you’re probably riding the brake.

          People who ride the brake pedal should have their cars shut off and tell them how stupid they are for endangering the lives of the people behind them.

          Alternatively, kudos to GM for engineering a brake light system which can fail and operate in an opposite fashion (brake lights off during braking, on while not braking). I didn’t think you could screw up something so simple and basic as a brake light system, but they found a way.

          (I’ve personally seen 2 G6s exhibit this in the real world while following them, apparently it’s a Body Computer failure)

  • avatar

    No more brake torquing in a Toyota!

    • 0 avatar

      I haven’t tried it recently in a Toyota, but you likely still can. the Brake Over Throttle strategy likely takes VSS (vehicle speed) into account and will allow it at 0 speed.

      • 0 avatar

        This is correct. It’s still possible to do brake torqueing. The brake override comes on when you have your foot on the gas and then slam on the brake. The brakes do more of a job than the override does, which just further reinforces Toyota’s claims that much of this is driver error and people hitting the wrong pedals.

  • avatar

    “Brake Override System”

    Aren’t all vehicles designed so that the brakes will always out-torque the engine? Even if the throttle was stuck open, wouldn’t full brake pressure slow the car to a stop? I guess Toyota is taking this one step further and actually reducing engine power in a stuck or heavily opened throttle situation.

    • 0 avatar

      In theory, yes. But, as usual, it depends on the totality of the circumstances.

      For example, if the vehicle is stopped and you hold the brake while flooring the accelerator, you’re not going anywhere.

      If you’re at highway speeds and the vehicle goes full throttle on you (and your vehicle does not have a brake override system – AND you don’t have the presence of mind to put the car in neutral), the brakes will slow you down to either a stop or to a very slow speed…but probably only once as they will become very very hot in doing so and you will experience brake fade. You may also experience lack of power assist at some point because full throttle = no vacuum and if you pump the brakes you will exhaust the vacuum reserve of the booster pretty quickly.

      So if for whatever reason you let off the brakes and allow the car to accelerate again, you may not be able to get it slowed down again – which is I think what happened to that guy in CA in the loaner Lexus where several people were killed.

      No matter what kind of car you’re driving, whether it be an old beater with a throttle cable or a modern car with a drive-by-wire throttle, if the throttle ever gets stuck, your first action should be to immediately place the transmission in neutral, then pull over and brake to a safe stop. In real life of course this pretty much never happens but if it does, nobody has to die over this shit.

      In this particular case my gut feeling is it’s pedal misapplication – but the vehicle event data recorder evidence should show that pretty definitively. I’d like to see TTAC report on what that evidence shows when the trial gets to that point.

      • 0 avatar

        while you are correct in putting the car into neutral, tests have shown that car will stop almost the same whether you have gas pedal pressed or not… I think MT tested it with Camry.

        what happened here was woman pressing gas instead of brakes, not sure how could anything help her.

  • avatar

    I suspect that in this case, the lady screwed up or her medical ailments were contributors.
    In the case of the CHP officer fatality, the floor mat did jam the pedal and the guy overheated the brakes trying to slow the car. The car had a push button on/off and apparently they tried that but the button had to be held down several seconds. No attempt was made to put the car into neutral.
    I live in a cold climate and have experienced frozen throttles. Knowing what to do should be somewhere in one’s brain. Statistically, 1/3 of the motoring public should not have a driver’s licence.
    Toyota engineering may have caused some deaths but how does one engineer for stupidity and ignorance?
    Statistics have shown that all brands have documented cases of unintended acceleration. Toyota just happened to be a scapegoat during a major downturn in the USA economy.
    Lets go after the Japs, they did bomb Pearl Harbor.

    • 0 avatar

      Have had a “throttle misapplication” happen if my sandal-soled flip-flops are loose on my feet. (Except when going to work, they’re on my feet from March 1st through the first snow, provided there isn’t snow on the ground! Hell, I’d wear ’em IN light snow, too!)

      Sometimes, when they’ve been loose, they would pivot on my feet, and I’d be hitting the brake, but the toe would be brushing the gas!! The very first time this happened (as I was waiting to turn out of a side street), I instinctively dropped the tranny into “Neutral” before even THINKING “WTF is going on?!,” much less figuring out the problem!!

      If we only had people in this country who had a CLUE about driving! Even that cop who got killed in that Lexus should have had NO PROBLEM after dropping the car into Neutral. AFIK, no Lexi have the electronic shifters like the Prius does; B&B, correct me if I’m wrong! Yes, the engine may bounce off the rev-limiter, which may contribute to an “I’m not slowing down” feeling, particularly if the brakes are a smoking mess! But you should be able to get over, if traffic allows, and drive on the shoulder, sideswiping guardrails or the like as necessary in order to stop!

      It does beg the question: is there an emergency Neutral procedure on BMWs and other cars with e-shifters? Will a press of the “P” button at speed simply take the transmission out of gear, or is the button completely non-functional past a certain speed in order to prevent “transmissionus go-kaboomus?”

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