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Toyota Recalls Spur Worries


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.