Starter Button A Factor in Runaway Lexus ES350?

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Toyota has taken a massive hit to its rep, due to reports of floor mat-related unintended acceleration, and the automaker’s subsequent recall. The headline case: a fatal crash on August 28th. As The LA Times reports, a “runway” Lexus ES350 slammed into another vehicle and embankment, killing California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, teenage daughter and brother-in-law. The Times raises an important point: ” . . . a close look at the Lexus ES 350 raises questions about whether the car’s very design may have compromised Saylor’s skills. One obvious line of defense is to simply shut off the engine, a step that may not be intuitive on the ES 350. The car has a push-button start system, activated by the combination of a wireless electronic fob carried by the driver and a button on the dashboard. But once the vehicle is moving, the engine will not shut off unless the button is held down for a full three seconds — a period of time in which Saylor’s car would have traveled 528 feet. A driver may push the button repeatedly, not knowing it requires a three-second hold.”

The Times points out that the ES 350 was a loaner; Officer Saylor’s car may or may not have had a push button start. What’s more . . .

That procedure is explained deep in the owners manual. In a text box labeled “! Caution,” Toyota tells owners, “Do not touch the ‘power’ switch while driving.” But under the warning it adds, “If you have to make an emergency stop, press and hold the ‘power’ switch for more than three seconds.”

So what about shifting out of gear, per Consumer Reports’ advice?

The other common defense tactic advised by experts is to simply shift a runaway vehicle into neutral. But the ES 350 is equipped with an automatic transmission that can mimic manual shifting, and its shift lever on the console has a series of gates and detents that allow a driver to select any of at least four forward gears.

The arrangement of those gear selections could make it difficult to shift from a forward gear directly into neutral in a panic situation, Toyota spokesman Lyons acknowledged.

“I think it’s possible to get the shifter confused, but I can’t be sure that’s what happened” in San Diego, Lyons said. “You’d be surprised how many people around here [Toyota] don’t know what the neutral position is for.”

Don’t know what neutral is for? How about the brakes?

The ES 350 and most other modern vehicles are equipped with power-assisted brakes, which operate by drawing vacuum power from the engine. But when an engine opens to full throttle, the vacuum drops, and after one or two pumps of the brake pedal the power assist feature disappears.

As a result, a driver would have to apply enormous pressure to the brake pedal to stop the car, and if the throttle was wide open might not be able to stop it at all, safety experts say.

When Audi got hit with sudden unintended acceleration accusations, the “step on the brake while engaging gear” requirement was born. One wonders how this Toyota situation is going to play out from a regulation point-of-view. Meanwhile, lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers. Not because it makes sense, mind you. But because this is how these things always play out.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Mpresley Mpresley on Oct 21, 2009
    # criminalenterprise :@mpresley: I come here to read about cars and the car business and have to wade through the ancient history of Randian tripe flavored with a sprinkle of bigotry, sexism and luddism. That's the beauty of a place like this...you can skip over what you don't want to read; and you don't have to waste your time telling others what you don't like, either.
  • Criminalenterprise Criminalenterprise on Oct 22, 2009
    you don’t have to waste your time telling others what you don’t like, either. Quod erat demonstrandum.
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