washingtonpost.com
Toyota brakes under investigation

Jake Fisher
Senior engineer, Consumer Reports Auto Test Division
Thursday, February 4, 2010; 1:00 PM

Jake Fisher, a senior engineer at Conumer Reports, took your questions about the growing safety issues plaguing Toyota.

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I'm confused...: Am I supposed to wait until I get a letter telling to go get my gas pedal fixed or just go in and get it done anyway because I have one of the models listed in the recall?

Jake Fisher: Yes. There are millions of vehicles involved in the recall. The dealer will contact you and schedule you for a fix.

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Lexus gas pedals: I have a 2005 Lexus ES330. It has always had a noticeable lag between when you press the gas pedal and when the car accelerates. According to the dealer when we bought it (in 2006), this is very normal and is because the car's computer sends a signal to the throttle to open up more (instead of the traditional cable type pedal-to-throttle control).

With the Federal Government focusing more on the potential role that car computers are playing in this whole "unwanted acceleration" issue, I am wondering: do you think this model of Lexus is more susceptible or less susceptible to the problem, even though it's not currently on the recall list? We also have a 2008 Chevy Impala, and I don't know if it also has a computer-controlled throttle, but I can tell you there is no noticeable lag when you press the gas pedal.

Jake Fisher: There are many vehicles that have a delay before they accelerate from a start. This is not a defect and not related to the safety recall.

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Vienna, VA: I'm very disturbed by the government's reaction and the public comments made by the the transportation secretary. There have been many domestic manufacturers who have had safety recalls and I can't remember any calls for congressional hearings/so much public bashing.

Many comparisons being made to the Audi "unintended acceleration" from the 1980s, which if I remember correctly were almost universally tied to user error (hitting the brakes instead of the gas and the news media faking stuff - remember how much trouble 60 mintues got into). Anyway, a couple questions/observations: 1. The gas pedal assembly in question is made in the USA correct?
2. How many of the affected models are actually manufactured in the USA?
3. In order to qualify as a domestic manufacturer they have to have a certain % of domestic content right?
4. Is Toyota unionized in the USA?
5. If people weren't so brain dead behind the wheel they'd know that they could either stomp on the brakes (they will overcome even a stuck gas pedal) or put the car into neutral.

This just seems like a really coordinated attack on Toyota in an attempt to steer consumers to domestic cars. What's that "stones & glass houses thing"?

Jake Fisher: The fact that this has caused Toyota to suspend sales of their most popular models has made this a big issue. The sticky pedal problem itself has not caused many accident, and has not been linked to the sudden acceleration complaints that have caused deaths.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Toyota Models affected: What is meant by "CERTAIN" 2007-2010 camrys? Is it true that 2007 Camrys with VIN numbers starting with "JT" ARE NOT AFFECTED?

Jake Fisher: The VIN's starting with J are not involved in THIS recall, but may be involved with the previous recall involving the floormats.

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New Haven, Conn.: I'm finding it hard to express my frustration with Toyota at the moment. My entire family has bought Toyotas since the mid-1980s, after experiencing terrible quality problems with a number of American-brand cars. We've always been pleased with the performance of our Toyotas, but I find my trust in their quality shaken by these recalls. What happened?

Jake Fisher: It's important to put this in perspective. The recall is huge, but there aren't many incidents of this. Overall, Toyota has had excellent reliability.

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Rockville, Md.: For all of my driving life (quite a few years) I have always worked on plans for "What do I do if..." Early on, I was ready when the hood came up while driving and managed to stop without problem by driving from the mirror and looking around the sides. If I could not slow down the gas, I would get out of gear and drive to the side of the road.

So, I was wondering why there has been so much "panic" about Toyota and have an idea why. Most people do not think ahead. In fact they had rather not think about driving at all. They shave, eat or even do grooming while driving. Now we have to have laws to stop texting while driving.

To them, the car is the extended living room and the road is part of the view, and sometimes something to ignore.

So we don't drive so well. And panic at the first sign of any problems.

What can we do to fix this?

Jake Fisher: I completely agree with this. However, there are certain elements of the design of the Toyotas that have made the cars more likely to have problems with entrapment. I think the design of the cars should prevent problems, but drivers should be prepared to deal with problems when they happen.

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Livonia, LA.: I think this is more serious than what is being reported. A friend of mine had the accelerator, "stick", but it was not a hardware problem. She said she actually put her foot under the pedal, but it was not stuck;the car just kept accelerating. She was going nearly 100 mph before it just slowed down on its own. She paniced and did not think to put the car in neutral. The dealship told her it was the floor matts at which she explained that the floor matt was flat on the floor. The only thing they are telling her now is not to pass anyone or accelerate too quickly.

I think many more people have goten killed or injured because of this.

Oh! The dealer also told her that her story could not be true, because it was impossible for that to happen unless an object held the accelerator down.

Jake Fisher: The truth is that nearly all manufacturers have records of sudden acceleration. However, these types of problems are very rare. It's hard to tell what could have caused your friend's problem - but regardless of how it happened, we need to make sure that they are able to stop the car.

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Danville: I think there is a conflict of interest with the government trying to take market share away from Toyota to the benefit of its investment in GM. Are Toyota plants in the U.S. unionized?

Jake Fisher: I believe that Toyota's California plant was the only one that is unionized. However, they are planning on closing it.

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McLean, Va.: Three months ago Woz noted his problems with his Prius, and diagnosed a software failure: Wozniak (Slashdot)

So there's that going on, too.

Jake Fisher: The Prius problem has nothing to do with sudden acceleration, or loss of brakes. It is a change in brake feel under some situations. However, it is under investigation.

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Arlington, Va.: I cannot understand why, given the reported problems with the Lexus ES350 as outlined in today's Post article and that the terrible California crash involved the Lexus ES350, Toyota is claiming the problem is with the accelerator in the Toyota line, not the Lexus line. I know they are produced by different companies. Seems to me that if Toyota acknowledged a problem with Lexus it would be conceding that the problem is not with the one accelerator provider but with the electronics system which would mean an even BIGGER problem. And what are we owners of Lexus ES350s to think?

washingtonpost.com: 2007 federal probe of Toyota complaints resolved nothing (Post, Feb. 4)

Jake Fisher: The accelerator pedal problem has not been linked to sudden acceleration problems. It is a different issue. The Lexus ES350 was recalled under a separate previous recall.

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Alexandria, Va.: Given that Toyotas have always received high grades for reliability -- what will this snafu do to their scores?

Jake Fisher: The reliability record still stands. While serious, the problems are very rare. While there may have been 2000 reports of sudden acceleration, keep in mind that Toyota has sold around 20 Million cars in the U.S over the last 10 years. A one in 10,000 chance is not a high problem rate by any measurement.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm in the market for a new car and had been considering the Toyota RAV. So a) will Toyota dealers be so glad to see a customer on the sales floor they'll give me a great deal, or b) is this a terrible idea to buy any Toyota, because of the safety issues themselves and for their effect on resale value down the road?

Jake Fisher: This may be a great opportunity to negotiate a price on a Toyota. They aren't going away and still produce quality vehicles. For the short run, resale values may be affected. But it is hard to say what's going to happen five years down the road when you go to sell your car.

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Washington, D.C.: Tell I'm confused to call their dealership and ask about the protocol for the repairs. I did that this morning, and without any whining on my part, the dealership offered me a repair slot for next Tuesday.

Jake Fisher: Good input. Clearly the dealerships want to retain your future business and will do what they need to do.

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Derwood, Md.: I have experienced a problem with losing power when I turn to go around a corner and the wheel sensor senses one wheel going faster than the other. Power is lost for 5 to 10 seconds. Is this an issue that should be reported since I would not be able to move out of the way of traffic?

Jake Fisher: Power should not be lost for 10 seconds. Contact your dealer for a repair. You can also report it to NHTSA online if you believe it is a safety concern.

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Eagan, Minn.: I understand the concern with the recall but far more people die every day from drinking and driving, texting, etc. Why is there not the same outrage and attention to this? Someone driving a Ford eating a Big Mac is far more dangerous than one of these Toyotas

Jake Fisher: About 40,000 people die each year in traffic fatalities. About 19 have died in the last 10 years due to Toyota sudden acceleration. There are other concerns that may have a larger impact on safety.

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Oshkosh, Wisc.: Why, oh why, do these conservative anti-union folks have to politicize this? Government conspiracy for the benefit of GM? Oh please...grow up for gosh sakes!

Jake Fisher: I think we can safely say that this not a union issue. However, Ray LaHood's remarks have not helped the situation.

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New York: I'm confused. If "the accelerator pedal problem has not been linked to sudden acceleration problems," is it not then true that Toyota has not been able to identify what is causing the acceleration problem? Isn't that exactly what's getting everyone so upset?

I read this morning that studies (by the NHTSA?) show that 3 percent of certain models have the acceleration problem, and 3 percent is a lot of cars.

Jake Fisher: The recall last year dealt with the sudden acceleration problems. Because of the design of the throttle pedal and proximity to the floor, they can get stuck by a floor mat. Toyota is changing the pedal, floor, and implementing a redundant software in those vehicles that will let the brake pedal override the throttle.

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Denver, Colo.: The Toyota Highlander is part of the recall. I drive a Lexus RX350, which I believe is built on the Highlander platform. Should I be concerned? Should I contact my Lexus service department to find out if my RX350 is part of the recall? Also, the VIN number of my RX350 starts with neither J or C. How do I tell the country of origin?

Jake Fisher: Your RX was not involved in any of the recalls.

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Laytonsville, Md. : Any mention -- anywhere -- of any Scion models being involved in any of these problems?

Jake Fisher: No. Scion is off the hook as well.

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Arlington, Va.: If it's just mechanical, why does the fix involve reflashing the ECU (computer)?

Jake Fisher: Great question. The ECU change is the belt and suspenders fix. The modification allows the brake to override the accelerator input. So even if it gets stuck, you will still be able to easily stop the vehicle.

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Arlington, Va.: You said "Toyota is implementing a redundant software in those vehicles that will let the brake pedal override the throttle." Is that really redundant or does Toyota not want to admit that part of the problem was software? Why do you believe their story now when just a few months ago the problem was only floor mats?

Jake Fisher: I have experienced "Smart Throttle" technology. No matter what they do, there still could be rare cases where a throttle gets stuck open. There are reports of such cases with nearly every manufacturer. Smart Throttle technology is the right thing to do, and makes the vehicles more safe.

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Reston, Va.: I have a question about the electronic systems in other car makers. Will we see problems across the spectrum on different issues. For example, my 2006 VW Passat does not have a problem with sudden acceleration; however, I have had a recurring problem with my power steering (a "steering column" problem pops up on the electronic reader). So far, it does not appear to affect performance except that car will not start until after repeated attempts - and steering column does feel a little stiff.

Jake Fisher: In our annual survey, we receive data from about 1.4 million vehicles. Many of the problems are electronic, but most are not safety related. Your 2006 Passat has a problem that should be checked out.

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Jake Fisher: Thanks for all the great questions! This is a confusing and developing issue. I hope I helped make sense of things. Drive Safe!

Jake Fisher
Sr. Automotive Engineer
www.consumerreports.org

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