Toyota And Unintended Acceleration: A Lawsuit And A Car Show

Categories: Cover Story
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Toyota has announced during the last several months a series of recalls to fix the problem of its cars accelerating out of control. Last week, in perhaps the most dramatic move, the company said it would stop selling eight models of cars and trucks.

Each of those fixes involved floor mats or gas pedals, which Toyota says can get stuck and cause the unintended acceleration. According to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Corpus Christi on Friday, however, a faulty pedal has nothing to do with the problem.

The class action lawsuit claims that Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System "is defective in that it will allow sudden unintended acceleration of the vehicle engine."

"Everyone's worst nightmare is a runaway car, whether you're behind the wheel or your child is crossing the road and a runaway car is barreling down on your child," Robert Hilliard, the attorney that filed the lawsuit, tells Hair Balls. "Toyota has a very serious, life-threatening issue that they have not been open and forthright about."

The lawsuit adds that Toyota started selling cars in 2001 that were equipped with the electronic system, which uses a computer sensor to determine acceleration based on pressure applied to the gas pedal, but not a system that would override the electronic throttle if it malfunctioned.

"Toyota and Lexus vehicles equipped with [the electronic] throttle are defective and unsafe in that [Toyota] failed to incorporate important failsafe measures critical to assisting a driver in maintaining control of the vehicle during a sudden unintended acceleration event," the lawsuit states.

Brian Lyons, a spokesman for Toyota, tells Hair Balls, via e-mail, "Electronic throttle control systems in Toyota vehicles have fail-safe mechanisms to prevent malfunctions that could potentially contribute to sudden unintended acceleration. We and others have extensively investigated this and never found and incident of unintended acceleration caused by the vehicle's computer/electronic control unit."

The lawsuit names Corpus Christi residents Albert and Sylvia Pena, who own a 2008 Avalon. From the lawsuit:

On or about January 14, 2010, [Albert Pena] was driving the [Avalon] in question, when the vehicle unexpectedly accelerated at a stop sign, causing a collision. Recently, [Sylvia Pena] was driving the vehicle in question when the vehicle suddenly and unexpectedly accelerated while attempting to slow down to make a turn.
The Avalon was one of the eight models that won't be sold until further notice, according to last week's announcement. Toyota released today a "comprehensive plan" to fix the accelerator problem.

The Toyota Prius, which was the focus of a Houston Press cover story about unintended acceleration, published in April of last year, was not a model included in the suspended sales. Lyons says the Prius was not included because the gas pedals involved in the latest recall are from a North American supplier, and "no Japan-sourced vehicles are affected."

CTS, the manufacture of the pedal, has denied that its product is the cause of the problem.

The Prius was, however, involved in earlier action, including a September 2009 recall that included 3.8 million Toyota vehicles. Previous explanations from Toyota about the cause of unintended acceleration have included faulty floor mats and poorly designed gas pedals.

"The trust has not been breached because of the defect, the trust has been breached by [Toyota] refusing to come clean about how to fix the problem," Hilliard says. "That is the insidiousness of  this problem. If your left blinker doesn't work, you can see my left blinker doesn't work, let's get it fixed. But if you say my car will suddenly, without pushing the accelerator, accelerate and there's nothing you can do about it, the first reaction is, 'Whatever. I don't believe it.'"

He adds, "It seems so unlikely that your car has a ghost under the hood and has a mind of its own, which is what it feels like and is frightening to imagine."

Hair Balls happened to be at the Houston Auto Show this weekend, and we asked a Toyota rep why the Toyota models that aren't being sold anymore were still on display. 

The rep told us that the cars would be sold again once the problem is fixed, and as soon as we walked away, we were stopped by a salesman from a local Toyota dealership. He overheard our conversation, he said, and assured us that if we wanted one of the vehicles included in the recall, he'd be glad to sell us one.

"The media and everyone is making it seem like we can't sell any of those cars," he told us. "That's not true."

We had another interesting experience at the Toyota display at the auto show. Maybe this is an indicator of rough times at Toyota, or maybe it's evidence that the company is smarter than the rest, but whatever the case, the knobs that control the air conditioning and stereos, and the handles on top of the gear shifts, had been removed from all the Toyota vehicles. It looked very strange.

"We did that so people wouldn't steal them," a Toyota saleswoman told us.

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Photo by Paul Knight

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