Toyota's Corolla: With the Camry, 650,000 were sold in the U.S. last year. (NightRPStar/Flickr photo)
Toyota is facing every manufacturer's nightmare scenario this week, as its "sudden acceleration" problem escalated into a shutdown of eight popular product lines, affecting 57% of the company's models (including the ultra-popular Camry and Corolla). I've been following this situation closely for The Daily Green, and it's clearly been building to this kind of drastic solution.
The problem is that many, many people have reported that their cars (definitely not all Toyotas) just suddenly take off with the pedal to the metal. There are hundreds if not thousands of such cases in recent years (many that ended in fatalities), and it is defying a quick fix.
I've done my own research into this problem, including fielding emails and calls from many people who've lived through this horrifying experience. Here's one such email:
I have a 2008 Camry LE, bought brand new in November 2007. I experienced unintended acceleration on my way to work, on Thursday January 24, 2009 riding in rush hour traffic on a major highway. The car started accelerating on it's own and forcing the brake pedal down and pumping it wouldn't stop it. After about 5 minutes it settled down and went at regular speed.
I own a 2005 Toyota Tacoma. It is my daily driver and my husband drives it on occasion. We have both experienced the truck surge in RPMs while sitting at a stoplight. The truck feels like it wants to take off on its own. We both responded with pressing harder on the brakes.
But I have also heard from drivers of Acuras, Fords and even old Volkswagen Rabbits. It's clear that this is a problem with a variety of causes, including floormats fouling gas pedals, sticky pedal assemblies, balky throttle cables (in older cars), and more. And it's industry-wide, not restricted to Toyota.
Jake Fisher, a senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports, concurs that sudden acceleration is not confined to Toyota. "We have reviewed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's complete records, and it's all over the map. Throttle cables get stuck, throttle bodies get jammed. It's a multi-faceted problem."
The only carmakers not likely to be implicated are those based in Germany, because most German cars have a "smart throttle" that disengages the gas pedal when the brake is pressed. The car returns to idle. "We've tested it and it works very well," said Fisher.
Consumer Reports advises people caught in a sudden acceleration incident to "put the car in neutral, press and hold the brakes, come to a complete stop and turn off the engine." In that order. Some cars (with push-button start) make it non-intuitive to turn off the engine, and others (with serpentine shift paths) also present challenges in finding neutral.
James Bell, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says that, to preserve its reputation, Toyota should have "handled this in a bolder and more direct fashion. The company had the wherewithal to address this directly so they'd look like heroes instead of appearing to have been dragged into taking care of the problem. I think the company's conservative culture is an issue -- sudden acceleration was not in Toyota's plans."
The production lines for the RAV-4, Corolla, Matrix, Avalon, Camry, Highlander, Tundra and Sequoia will be shut down next week. And it's uncertain when they'll be up and running again, since Toyota doesn't have an immediate fix for the problem. It can replace floormats easily enough, but pedal assemblies have to be engineered and manufactured.
Toyota spokesman John Hanson said that Toyota is "working on remedies. This is a stop-sale' situation, and we don't want it to last. Right now, we don't have a timeline on it." Toyota continues to deny that electronic interference with throttle-by-wire systems could be involved, though some victims' attorneys are asserting that.
To keep its reputation for quality, Toyota will have to appear to be fully engaged in addressing this issue and finding a lasting fix. Anything less, and this once pre-eminent company will never recover. But, again, it's not solely a Toyota issue. All automakers will need to have sudden acceleration solutions to make their vehicles fail-safe.
According to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), "Toyota has a reputation for resolving problems quickly. We certainly hope that's the case in this situation as well. NADA is working with Toyota to identify a plan to help get dealers through this. In the meantime, we are encouraging Toyota dealers to check to see if they have business interruption insurance that might help them weather this crisis."
Toyota has set up a toll-free number to answer customer's questions: 1-800-331-4331.
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