Toyota's Camry: Drive carefully! (Flickr/ASurroca)
If the Toyota recall and "stop sale" order is confusing you, you're not alone. The sudden acceleration problem is something you probably have never experienced and most likely never will. But you need to be aware of it, and be ready to respond -- because if it happens you'll have nanoseconds to make decisions. Here's what you need to know:
What did Toyota do?
Shortly before it suspended sales of eight very popular models, Toyota issued a massive recall of 2.3 million vehicles whose gas pedals may get stuck or become slow to return. It then followed up with another 1.09 million more. The cars affected by the first of those two recalls are all Toyotas (no Lexuses or Scions): RAV4, Camry, Corolla, Matrix, Avalon, Highlander, Tundra and Sequoia. Check dates, because it's not all years. Most recently, Toyota added the Venza and the Pontiac Vibe.
Late last year, Toyota was forced to recall 4.2 million cars for a related problem--gas pedals that can get fouled by the floormats. Affected there are the Prius, Tacoma, Avalon, Lexus ES350, IS250 and IS350, Camry and Tundra. Yes, there is some overlap in these recalls.
Toyota says new gas pedals are on the way to replace the "sticky" ones. On Thursday, Toyota said it was extending the recall to Europe, though an assessment of which models are affected is still going on. With Europe added, there are now nine million cars likely to be recalled. It's unclear how long the U.S. sales suspension will last. Two House committees are holding hearings on the issue.
Here's a Toyota FAQ page on the issue.
What do I do if sudden acceleration happens to me?
Hundreds of drivers report their cars suddenly taking off on them, and there's no clear pattern -- some are at stop signs, others cruising on the highway. Here's one way it played out: "The car accelerated without driver input on two separate occasions. The last event resulted in smashing through the plate-glass window of a travel agency, injuring one employee. The car ended up totally in the agency, halted by an interior wall."
It can occur anytime, anywhere; the important thing is to be prepared. The natural response is to hit the brakes, and that is indeed the right idea -- but it's important to maintain firm, even pressure and to not pump them, because, as Consumer Reports points out, that can lead to a catastrophic failure just when you need the brakes most. (Pumping the pedal when the engine's racing will cause the brakes to lose the vacuum that sustains them.)
Shifting into neutral is another really useful tactic and, if you can, take a moment to practice that maneuver in a parking lot. Neutral should be one notch up from drive, but not all of today's automatic transmissions (some with manual-shifting functions) are set up that way.
Finally, you'll be tempted to turn off the engine, but don't do it until you're safely parked. Shutting off (a challenge on some cars with pushbutton start) will disable power steering and brakes -- again, when they're needed most.
Is sudden acceleration a problem only for Toyotas? What causes it?
It would be a mistake to see this problem as limited to one company. For one thing, CTS Corp., the Indiana-based company that made the pedal assemblies in the recalled Toyotas, also supplies a host of other manufacturers, including Ford (which recalled Transit Classic trucks in China for that reason), Honda and Nissan.
The carmakers all hasten to point out that their versions of the pedal assembly have different designs and specifications from Toyota's. But the fact remains that there have been many unintended acceleration cases in cars from other manufacturers. I have fielded stories from drivers of Volkswagen Rabbits (two), Ford F-150 pickup trucks (again, two), Chrysler Sebring convertibles and many others.
In some cases dating back many years, the problem was a sticking throttle cable or a malfunctioning carburetor. Today, a culprit could be electronic interference with the ubiquitous "throttle by wire" accelerator systems on many platforms.
Should I park my Toyota?
I don't think that's warranted, because this is still a very rare occurrence. The best solution is to keep driving, but be very careful -- and remain alert for a car that might suddenly develop a mind of its own.
Sudden acceleration is less of a new problem than you might think:
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