MADISON, Wis. — Just as the memory of Toyota's unintended acceleration cases began to fade, at least in the minds of the media and a few million thus far unaffected Toyota owners, in comes Robert Ruginis to dredge it all up again.
Ruginis, a Bristol, Rhode Island-based embedded systems engineer, filed a petition letter on Thursday, September 11, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about multiple low-speed surge events involving his wife's 2010 Toyota Corolla. The Ruginis case poses for Toyota the danger that the public and government regulators will remember that the Japanese automotive giant has never really addressed the root cause of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.
Ruginis is now asking the NHTSA to investigate “low-speed surging in the 2006-2010 Toyota Corolla with ETCS-i, in which the brakes fail to stop the vehicle in time to prevent a crash,” according to the petition letter he filed Thursday.
In a move that could make the matter more high-profile, Ruginis is taking the matter to the lawyer designated as “independent monitor” as part of Toyota's deferred prosecution agreement with the government over the automaker's handling of unintended-acceleration claims.
In his letter to David Kelley, the independent monitor, Ruginis wrote:
I am writing to inform you that Toyota Motor North America may already have broken the terms of the March 2014 deferred prosecution agreement by making misleading statements and concealing information on a safety issue related to unintended acceleration. I request that you investigate my case.
To recap, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion earlier this year, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice. Toyota recalled 8.1 million cars, but says no cause was ever found except floor mats that can trap acceleration pedals and drivers who hit the accelerator when they thought they were pushing the brake.
The experience Ruginis and his wife have had with their Corolla — bought new in May 2010 — tells a very different story.
In a letter Ruginis wrote to NHTSA, he noted: “The MY2010 Corolla was subject to the floor mat entrapment and sticky accelerator recalls. The dealership applied the 'sticky pedal' remedy in February, before we purchased the vehicle. The floor mat remedy was applied in November 2010.”
The Ruginis family's troubles with their new Corolla began almost immediately after they bought it. In an interview with EE Times, Ruginis explained that he returned the car to the dealer twice before his wife crashed into another car in a parking lot in June this year. Both times, Toyota technicians claimed there was nothing wrong with the car.
As he told a story of the accident on June 8, 2014 in his petition letter to NHTSA, Ruginis wrote:
At the time of the crash, a sunny, temperate afternoon, my wife, Kathleen Ruginis, was making a slow, right hand turn to ease into a parking space on High Street in Bristol, Rhode Island. Her foot was on the brake, when the vehicle surged forward and crashed into an unoccupied parked Jeep in front of it. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Enough smoking gun
Having already complained twice, Robert and Kathleen Ruginis realized this crash was not an isolated incident.
After the crash, Ruginis got in touch with Sean Kane, a well-known auto-safety expert. Kane, of Safety Research & Strategies, found 164 complaints from NHTSA's files that appear to relate to similar problems in Toyotas.
Kane told EE Times that the Ruginis case is “stunning” for several reasons.
First is Ruginis's background. Now an independent consultant focused on consumer electronics, he spent 35 years working on embedded systems. His experience ranged from a position at “Chrysler working on new engine control systems to Milton Bradley's Advanced R&D creating new electronic toys and games, to Raytheon working on Navy sonar and acoustic systems, to Hasbro creating an electronic engineering group to support the complete electronic product cycle from advanced R&D to production,” according to Ruginis. In short, Kane thinks that a man who has spent his career with embedded systems ought to know when an embedded system goes haywire.
Second, noted Kane, Kathleen Ruginis's statements have been very clear and consistent. They are verified by a passenger in the car at the time of the crash.
Finally, a readout of the vehicle's Event Data Recorder (EDR) “is consistent to a 'T' to Kathleen's statements,” according to Kane.
Kane sees “enough smoking gun” here to make this case “a real standout.”
EDR readout in question
It's important to note, however, that EDR data isn't conclusive proof, as Kane explains. The EDR used in cars is not the same quality of so-called black boxes used in aviation. As Ruginis himself pointed out in his petition letter, “We are fortunate, because many parking lot crashes do not generate enough force to activate the EDR, and others produce inconclusive EDR results.”
The EDR investigation report whose copy Ruginis received from Bosch, the EDR reader's manufacturer, illustrates what happened in the car going back five seconds before the crash.
To read more of this external content on EETimes and to leave a comment, go to “New 'Runaway Toyota' Case Tests DOJ's Integrity.”