WASHINGTON A government probe cleared Toyota Motor Corp's electronics of causing unintended acceleration, a big victory for the world's top automaker as it seeks to recover from the hit it took over runaway vehicle accidents.
The findings vindicated Toyota's position that it had identified and fixed the only known safety problems with popular vehicles like the Camry by focusing on mechanical issues with accelerator pedals and the risk that floormats could trap the pedal in the open position.
"There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement on Tuesday.
Toyota's U.S.-traded shares closed 4 percent higher, buoyed by the government findings and the automaker's smaller than expected dip in quarterly earnings and higher sales forecast.
The probe by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA engineers followed questions by some safety advocates and lawmakers about whether software-driven throttles and flaws with electronic control systems had also played a role in unintended acceleration complaints.
Investigators concluded that most reports of runaway acceleration could be explained by driver error.
"What mostly likely happened was pedal misapplication. The driver stepped on the gas instead of the brake, or in addition to the brake," said Ronald Medford, NHTSA's deputy administrator.
Steve St. Angelo, a Toyota executive tasked with shoring up quality after last year's recalls, said the automaker hoped the study would "put to rest unsupported speculation" about the safety of Toyota's electronics.
"We believe this rigorous scientific analysis by some of America's foremost engineers should further reinforce confidence in the safety of Toyota and Lexus vehicles," he said in a statement.
LaHood, who had touched off a panic a year ago by urging Toyota owners with concerns to stop driving them, offered a blanket endorsement on Tuesday.
"We feel Toyota vehicles are safe to drive," LaHood said, adding that he recommended to his daughter that she buy a Sienna minivan after she sought his opinion.
WINNING BACK CUSTOMERS
Although Toyota has cleared a major hurdle in its ongoing safety saga, analysts cautioned that it would still struggle to win back American consumers who have defected from the brand and its luxury counterpart Lexus.
Toyota lost ground in the U.S. market in 2010, its market share fell from 17 percent at the end of 2009 to just over 15 percent in December.
"This is certainly going to help Toyota, but it doesn't change the fact that they let these other issues through," said TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak. "They're still going to face difficulties to bring people back to Toyota."
Toyota has recalled nearly 16 million vehicles globally since September 2009 when it took the first in a series of measures to fix problems with sticky accelerator pedals and potentially dangerous floormats.
The massive recalls in 2009 and 2010 rocked Toyota to its foundations and saw President Akio Toyoda come to Washington a year ago to tell U.S. lawmakers he was "deeply sorry."
The automaker has also paid nearly $50 million in penalties to the United States over the timeliness of its recalls, including the floor mat and "sticky pedal" cases.
U.S. safety regulators said they would consider imposing requirements for all vehicles to have brake override systems that automatically counteract any instances of unintended acceleration. They also said they would consider researching pedal design and placement.
Toyota has said it would install the brake override feature on new vehicles.
U.S. officials had been looking into 89 deaths that may be associated with sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. A handful of fatalities have been definitively linked to the problem by authorities, including four in the crash of Lexus sedan in California in August 2009 that was blamed on a jammed floor mat.
In the government's investigation, a NASA engineering center established in 2003 after the Columbia shuttle disaster examined nine Toyota vehicles, even bombarding them with electromagnetic radiation to see if their systems would fail.
Although the electronic throttle investigation turned up no flaws, Toyota still faces significant risks from scores of civil lawsuits stemming from the recalls.
Those cases in federal and state courts, which may turn on the timing of company disclosures to regulators of already established defects, have an estimated potential liability of up to $10 billion.
Sean Kane, a Massachusetts-based safety consultant who is working with plaintiffs' lawyers in those cases, said it was too early to say what weight the government report would carry.
"Just because they didn't find a defect doesn't mean that it couldn't exist," Kane said. "This report is not the be-all, end-all that they would like it to be."
(Reporting by John Crawley and David Lawder, additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)