Toyota dealerships: The cars are under several recalls. (Flickr photo)
Do you own one of the Toyota cars recalled by the company for unintended acceleration? Good, because many consumers are confused. At a time when cooperation would seem to be key, three of the principals -- including Toyota, the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and CTS Corp., the company that makes the recalled pedals, are feuding. Meanwhile, at presstime the feds announced that their investigation is spreading to include the possibility of electronic interference causing the problem.
The casualty may be the public's need to know how to handle this burgeoning crisis. "The mess has spread," says Barron's.
Toyota North American boss Jim Lentz has been very visible as apologist in chief. "This is embarrassing to us," he said during media appearances Monday, "but it doesn't necessarily mean we have lost our edge on quality. Our reputation is based on safety."
Toyota will lose sales: According to Kelley Blue Book, the resale value of Toyota's recalled models is likely to erode by up to two percent on dealer lots this week. Still, there's some evidence that consumers are snapping up the company's used cars because they're perceived as bargains.
Earlier today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to complaints that NHTSA (one of his agencies) has let Toyota take the lead in engineering a fix for owners of the cars. According to LaHood, "They should have taken it seriously from the very beginning when we first started discussing it with them," he said in an Associated Press interview today. "Maybe they were a little safety deaf in their North American office..."
Meanwhile, trouble is also brewing in CTS Corp., the Elkhart, Indiana firm that makes the 5.3 million pedal assemblies that Toyota has recalled. CTS doesn't want to be the fall guy for Toyota, and has pointed out that it had no role in initiating the recall. And it is denying responsibility for unintended acceleration. "CTS believes that the rare slow return pedal phenomenon, which may occur in extreme environmental conditions, should absolutely not be linked with any sudden unintended acceleration incidents," the company said.
CTS said that it wasn't aware of any injuries or accidents "caused by the rare slow return pedal condition."
But CTS does make pedals for many other carmakers, as I reported last week in the New York Times. Now NHTSA is investigating whether other carmakers using CTS pedals (including Ford, Nissan and Chrysler) have had sticking problems.
In addition to the ongoing NHTSA investigations, Congress is also looking into the matter. Two congressional committees, including House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, are launching hearings beginning next week.
As all this is going on, there is increasing speculation that sticking pedals and malfunctioning floormats are not the whole story. Electronic interference -- insidious because it leaves no path to follow -- is also a possibility. Today's complex cars have electronic throttles that send signals to pedal assemblies, and other electric systems on the car could modify or distort that traffic.
At presstime, in response to queries, NHTSA confirmed that it is investigating electronic interference as part of a comprehensive review of the causes of sudden acceleration. The agency says it's not convinced that it will find an issue there (earlier NHTSA investigations had suggested that "numerous redundancies" prevented such occurrences) but said it would look into the matter.
Electronic causes should be investigated, because in some cases, floor mats were in the trunk, and drivers' feet were away from the accelerator when their cars suddenly took off.
"Cars are complex machinery, and many different things could be going on," said Consumer Reports' Jake Fisher. "All it takes is one thing malfunctioning and something like this can happen."
Talking to Toyota owners, Fisher says, "Take your floormats out and leave them out." And, he cautions, learn how to put your car in neutral and familiarize yourself with procedures for shutting it off -- it's not obvious if your car has a start button. A NHTSA report from 2008 indicated that many owners of Lexus 350-ES cars did not know how to do either procedure. In this case, knowledge certainly is power.
If you have any experiences you'd like to share of runaway cars or other failed auto systems, email Jim Motavalli.
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