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More Fallout for Toyota

COVER STORY

More Fallout for Toyota
Problems the Houston Press reported won't go away

By Paul Knight

Toyota has announced during the last several months a series of recalls to fix the problem of its cars accelerating out of control. Recently, 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, 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 who 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 an 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 the company's announcement.

Toyota also 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 manufacturer 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 pointed to 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 recently, 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."
_____________________

WHATEVER

Mormons Are Annoyed with Houston

By John Nova Lomax

Along with Bob Hope's stated belief that the view south from his Warwick Hotel penthouse suite was the prettiest sight he had ever seen, the fact that "Houston" was the first word uttered on the Moon ranks as one of our fair city's boosters' most-bruited-about factoids.

It's easy to believe that nobody outside of the Bayou City particularly cares. Awhile back, as part of a marketing research campaign, Utah billboard company Reagan Outdoor and marketing firm Foster Research polled 300 residents of Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo — three of Utah's principal metropolises — asking them what word was first to be uttered from the lunar surface. Only 1.3 percent responded with the correct answer. (As a control, Reagan also asked the same group to name the Lieutenant Governor of Utah. Only 3 percent could correctly answer.)

So to demonstrate the awesome power of billboard advertising, Reagan has planted numerous billboards all over the Wasatch Front, as Utah's most populous region is known. After 28 days, Foster Research will conduct another poll, asking the Utahans the same question. And then they will do it again after hammering the message home for 28 more days.

After all that, Reagan and Foster expect that the number of people able to correctly name Houston as the first word spoken on the Moon will, um, skyrocket like Apollo 11, while those who can name the lieutenant governor will remain the same.

Ken Foster, president of Foster Research, told Salt Lake City TV station KSL that the question was chosen to honor last year's 40th anniversary of the moon landing. "This is just a fun little experiment," he tells Hair Balls. "I doubt I will win the Pulitzer with this study or anything like that."

So far, if online comments are anything to go by, the campaign is less than popular.

"I realize that they wanna do some research to improve their business, but why on earth is this considered news?" said one commenter.

"Why we let hideous billboards stand between us and our beautiful scenery is beyond me. I wish Utah communities banned billboards like communities do in other locations," longed another.

And a third pedantically pointed out that "Houston" was not in fact the first word spoken on the moon.

"The first words on the moon was 'contact.' That is when the contact pin hit the moon before the landing gear did, Neil said 'contact light.' Then Buzz said all the reporting on their situation 'Descent engine command override, off — engine arm, off — 413 is in.' Then, after a few moments, 'Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.'"

And a fourth predictably chimed in with this little nugget:

"What most people are not seeing is that the message on the billboard is a complete LIE! The Apollo moon landings are the biggest hoax played out on the people of the world. It was all played out on huge movie sets directed by Stanley Kubrick (eyes wide shut, 2001 a space odyssey), There is a lot more behind the STUPID billboard than meets the eye. Wake up and start seeing."

So there we have it. Houston was not the first word spoken on the moon, even if we had really gone there, which we haven't, and even if we had and it was, people in Salt Lake City don't want to know about it.


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