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Toyota Recalls Spur Worries

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Toyota Recalls Spur Worries

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Toyota Recalls Spur Worries

Toyota Recalls Spur Worries

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Toyota has insisted the problem with sudden acceleration involves the pedals on its vehicles, but many are questioning whether it's really the electronics. Now, there are reports of problems with the Prius, the company's best-selling hybrid. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is trying to explain what he meant when he said don't drive a recalled Toyota until it's fixed.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the latest on Toyota and its massive recall. Today on Capitol Hill, the secretary of Transportation offered his advice to Toyota owners only to confuse them more.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): If anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it.

SIEGEL: Well, soon afterwards, Secretary Ray LaHood nixed his advice to stop driving. He said he misspoke. In a moment we'll hear from a Toyota dealer and what he's telling anxious customers. But, first, more on what might be causing these problems. Toyota has blamed unwanted acceleration on floor mats and sticking pedals. But Secretary LaHood's department says it's now looking into a third possibility - trouble with electronic throttles.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Nancy Bernstein(ph) was driving her Prius in Wisconsin in the summer of 2007. She was following her husband, who was riding with other bikers along a winding road.

Ms. NANCY BERNSTEIN: I had the car just take off on a sudden acceleration.

LANGFITT: Bernstein says the speedometer raced from 45 to 70. She steered to avoid hitting the cyclists.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: I put the emergency brake on. I had both feet on the brake pedal. I was pulling up against the steering wheel. I was trying to shift into neutral - it wouldn't go into neutral for me. I tried to stop it with the power button. That wouldn't work. The only reason it stopped was, I think, the brakes melted together.

LANGFITT: Bernstein says the gas pedal did not stick on a floor mat - and it didn't stick mechanically either.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: I thought it was something electrical because I had gone over a rough railroad track.

LANGFITT: Bernstein's case is not unique. There are a number of incidents of sudden acceleration that Toyota's explanations so far just don't address. James Lentz runs Toyota in the U.S. In an interview with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED Monday, he rejected the idea that Toyota's electronic throttles had malfunctioned.

Mr. JIM LENTZ (President and COO, Toyota Motor Sales, USA): Obviously we have exhaustibly tested our electronic systems. And we have found no evidence at all that there was a problem with the electronics. We've tested it and so have other outside agencies.

LANGFITT: That's true. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has studied electronic throttles before. But after hearing more about reports like Nancy Bernstein's, the agency says it's taking, quote, "a fresh look." Specifically, investigators want to see if electromagnetic interference is causing electronic throttles to malfunction. Michael Pecht think that's a good idea.

Professor MICHAEL PECHT (University of Maryland; Author, "Sudden Acceleration"): The electronics of the car is probably the likely suspect for this.

LANGFITT: Pecht is the co-author of "Sudden Acceleration." He's also a professor of electronics reliability at the University of Maryland. Pecht says electromagnetic interference may be causing the throttles to just open up. In the old days, throttles were mechanical and used cables. Today, they rely on computers and sensors. Pecht says any number of things can cause interference.

Prof. PECHT: It could be even a cell phone. It could be power lines and it could be other electronics in the car, by the way.

LANGFITT: But proving that is hard. Pecht says electronic failures are intermittent and difficult to replicate in tests. He compares it to what happens when your laptop crashes.

Prof. PECHT: Let's say you have an HP computer and it suddenly doesn't work, and you reboot it and now you go to HP and you say, okay, HP my computer crashed yesterday right in the middle of doing something. And they're going to say, okay, well, let me see your computer. Well, I can't find anything. It looks good to me. It was working great.

LANGFITT: Over the years, cars have undergone a technological revolution. Increasingly they rely less on hardware and more on microprocessors. That has made vehicles more fuel efficient and cheaper to build. But it's also made them far more complex. Antony Anderson is an engineering consultant based in England. He thinks Toyota's problems with sudden acceleration will focus more attention on a broader issue.

Mr. ANTONY ANDERSON (Engineering Consultant, England): I think the story is headed towards people taking a long hard look at dependence on electronics. You know, we're creating systems all the time on the basis of electronics without necessarily thinking what the impact of this may be.

LANGFITT: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is starting with Toyota. The agency plans to study electronic throttles on the millions of cars and trucks the company has recalled.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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LaHood Backs Off 'Stop Driving Toyotas' Remark

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday reversed his recommendation that millions of Toyota owners affected by a massive recall "stop driving" the autos. LaHood said he misspoke and that owners should take their vehicles to a dealership for repair of defective gas pedals.

LaHood, speaking to a House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, earlier had this advice for Toyota owners: "Stop driving it. Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it."

The final word from LaHood: "What I meant to say or what I thought I said was, if you own one of these cars or if you're in doubt, take it to the dealer and they're going to fix it."

LaHood's comments came on the same day officials in Japan and the U.S. announced wider probes into safety issues that involve the 2010 edition of the company's top-selling Prius hybrid.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said it's continuing to investigate the possibility of that electromagnetic interference might cause the throttle control systems in the vehicles to malfunction, but the agency has not seen evidence to support that yet.

Further clouding the picture for consumers: the notion that problems could extend beyond Toyota vehicles. Federal officials have widened their investigation of malfunctioning gas pedals to see if the same problem exists in cars made by other auto companies.

Toyota Prius models come off a Japanese assembly line in June 2009. Toyota officials said Wednesday that the company has received dozens of complaints involving the brakes in the latest Prius model. Kyodo via AP hide caption

toggle caption Kyodo via AP

Toyota Prius models come off a Japanese assembly line in June 2009. Toyota officials said Wednesday that the company has received dozens of complaints involving the brakes in the latest Prius model.

Kyodo via AP

The traffic safety agency said it had sent a letter to CTS, the Indiana company that made the pedals for Toyota, to find out more about the pedals it has manufactured for other auto companies, including Honda, Nissan and a small number of Fords in China. CTS has been adamant that the issues are limited to Toyota alone.

Toyota said the sticking gas pedal situation is unusual and "generally does not occur suddenly. In the rare instances where it does occur, the vehicle can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes."

LaHood accused the world's largest automaker of dragging its feet in its response to complaints about sticking accelerators, which resulted in a global recall of 4.6 million vehicles. The 2.3 million vehicles that were recalled in the U.S. had gas pedals that were made by CTS.

Toyota announced earlier this week that it had a fix for the problem and that dealers would get repair kits this week. The repair involves installing a steel shim a couple of millimeters thick in the pedal assembly, behind the top of the gas pedal, to eliminate the excess friction between two pieces of the accelerator mechanism.

More On The Recall

In the United States, 2.3 million cars and trucks have been affected by Toyota's Jan. 21 recall. Those models are:

Certain 2009-2010 RAV4s
Certain 2009-2010 Corollas
2009-2010 Matrix
2005-2010 Avalon
Certain 2007-2010 Camrys
Certain 2010 Highlanders
2007-2010 Tundra
2008-2010 Sequoia

Toyota has said it will shut down production of the eight U.S. models during the week of Feb. 1. Sales also have been suspended, though the automaker said they can resume once the potential problem with sticky accelerators has been fixed.

Customers can visit www.toyota.com/recall or call the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 800-331-4331 for more information.

Still, Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles. In Japan, Toyota Vice President Shinichi Sasaki acknowledged that officials decided on the U.S. recall because of prodding from NHTSA.

LaHood said the U.S. government is considering civil penalties against the company for not addressing safety concerns faster.

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the online automotive magazine TheDetroitBureau.com, said LaHood's shocking advice to Toyota owners might reflect the exasperation over the extent of the Toyota recall — as well as the growing sense that the public may not know everything.

"If it's found out that Toyota knew more than it's let on and longer than it's let on, I think this administration will move for civil penalties," Eisenstein said.

Complaints Over Prius Brakes

Eisenstein said his publication first reported on complaints of problems with the company's top-selling Prius hybrid six weeks ago.

In Japan, the company acknowledged Wednesday it is investigating potential problems with the brakes in the Prius.

But the fix for the sticking accelerators hasn't ended the Japanese automaker's problems. In Japan, the company acknowledged it is also investigating potential problems with the brakes in the top-selling Prius hybrid.

Japanese Transport Ministry official Masaya Ota said the government has received 14 complaints since July about the 2010 Prius model. The complaints include a head-on car crash at an intersection in which the Prius' brakes allegedly failed, Ota said. Two people were slightly injured in the wreck.

"The Prius driver in the accident told police that a brake did not work," he said. "Other Prius drivers also complained brakes were not so sharp." The complaints in Japan involved vehicles that were made in Japan, he said.

In the U.S., NHTSA has received about 100 complaints involving the brakes of the new Prius model. Two crashes resulted in injuries.

Eisenstein said if the much-lauded Prius is tainted by safety issues, it could send the company over the edge despite having a huge reservoir of goodwill.

Toyota Safety Concerns Multiply

Toyota is now facing safety concerns on three fronts: accelerator pedals that stick when depressed, along with an earlier, similar problem in which accelerator pedals got stuck in floor mats; potential electrical problems; and problems with the brakes in the Prius.

The company has seen auto sales in the U.S. and elsewhere plummet following massive recalls and the temporary halt of sales of eight models — including the popular Camry and Corolla. Toyota's January sales fell below 100,000 a month for the first time in more than a decade.

Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, said the way the dealerships handle the repairs will be a big factor in whether Toyota retains or loses its customers.

"The dealership is really going to make or break Toyota in how they handle these recalls," Caldwell said. "Especially with something safety-related, you have to treat people well." She predicted customers will be willing to give the automaker another chance because Toyota has had a good track record for safety and reliability.

Still, Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles.

LaHood said Tuesday that the government was considering civil penalties for Toyota for having dragged its feet on safety concerns.

Toyota's executive vice president, Shinichi Sasaki, acknowledged Tuesday in a news conference from Nagoya, Japan, that it took prodding from NHTSA officials for the company to decide on the U.S. recall.

Written and reported by NPR's Deborah Tedford, with reporting by Anthony Kuhn, Carol Van Dam and The Associated Press

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