Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Confusion over Toyota accelerates

Click to play
LaHood backpedals on recall
  • Kelley Blue Book editor: LaHood softened remarks but it's hard "to un-ring the warning bell"
  • Autoweek magazine editor: The Toyota situation is spinning out of control
  • Toyota dealer predicts pandemonium at dealerships if LaHood's words heeded
  • Marketing expert says Toyota needs to establish a new industry standard

(CNN) -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood caused a stir Wednesday when he told owners of recalled Toyotas to stop driving their cars, took back that wording, and said he meant to tell worried owners to take their cars to the dealer for a fix.

Owners already are concerned and confused about their cars' safety since Toyota recalled millions of vehicles -- eight of its models -- because of problems with sticking gas pedals.

The following are some reactions to LaHood's remarks and comments on what Toyota needs to do next.

Rik Paul, Auto Editor, Consumer Reports: While we encourage Secretary LaHood to continue investigating causes of sudden unintended acceleration, we all must be careful not to unintentionally fan the flames of fear surrounding this issue. While such incidents are every driver's nightmare, they are very rare events.

Video: Toyota repairs begin
Video: Toyota still a good buy
Video: Toyota brand troubles
Video: What else is wrong at Toyota?

A sticking accelerator, which is the subject of Toyota's latest recall, is something that comes on gradually over time. Therefore, Consumer Reports recommends that owners of affected vehicles become familiar with the warning signs of trouble, which may include the accelerator pedal being harder to depress, slower to return to its upper position, or simply not operating smoothly. If you notice any of these signs, then get your car to a dealership as soon as possible.

Because you can experience unintended acceleration in any vehicle, all drivers should know what to do if it should happen to you: Apply the brakes firmly, but don't pump. Then shift quickly into Neutral. This will disengage the engine from the drive wheels. Finally, steer the car to a safe location, turn off the engine, and shift to Park.

Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst, Kelley Blue Book: A confusing situation for consumers grew even more confusing Wednesday when Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was quoted by CNN, The Associated Press and other national news sources as saying owners of Toyota vehicles affected by the recent recalls associated with unintended acceleration should "stop driving" their vehicles.

This led to yet another flurry of panic in the Toyota owner base. Department of Transportation spokespeople quickly dove in to clarify those remarks, saying that owners could continue to drive their cars and trucks but that they also should have the appropriate mechanical alterations done by Toyota service technicians as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is difficult to un-ring the warning bell, so many Toyota owners who were already nervous about driving their recalled vehicles are even more nervous today.

This latest speed bump yet again indicates how difficult a problem this is for Toyota and the auto industry as a whole. Certainly, the company and the brand are among the most highly regarded in the American marketplace, but that goodwill capital can quickly be depleted as the issue lingers. Each new piece of negative news -- be it a comment like that of Secretary LaHood or a report that vehicle electronic controls are also being called into question as a possible culprit -- are items that Toyota will have to counter before its reputation is restored. It is a difficult task, but no company in the industry seems better prepared to weather the challenge.

Meanwhile, the car-buyer has to sort through a seemingly never-ending jungle of confusion regarding the most vital of issues -- the safety of themselves and their families.

John Nielson, director of Auto Repair and Buying Services, AAA: It is important that when safety-related recalls are announced that the manufacturer and government representatives jointly develop a plan to address the problem and issue clear instructions to consumers about the needed fix and the actions they should take. This is sometimes much harder than it sounds.

Remedies need to be tested, parts ordered, and manufacturer dealers must then have the parts on hand. Their technicians must be trained and service bays available.

No one benefits when consumers receive conflicting information about the safety of their vehicle.

For now, what owners of the affected models need to focus on is contacting their local Toyota dealer -- if they have not already done so -- and arranging an appointment to have their vehicle serviced as soon as possible.

In the meantime, if a driver finds his or her vehicle does not decelerate when the throttle is released, AAA recommends the following steps:

• Stay calm, but act quickly.

• Keep looking at the road ahead. Looking away from the road to see what's wrong with the pedal will greatly increase the chances of a collision.

• Firmly apply the brakes to slow the vehicle and move to a safe location, turn on the emergency flashers, and call for towing assistance.

• If the brakes do not adequately slow the vehicle, put the vehicle's automatic transmission in neutral or -- in a vehicle with standard transmission -- depress the clutch. Coast to a safe location and turn the engine off by turning the key or depressing the start/stop button for more than 3 seconds. Do not put the transmission back into any gear with the engine running and do not turn the engine off until completely stopped.

• Once stopped, do not restart or drive the vehicle until the vehicle is inspected and serviced by a certified technician.

Wes Raynal, executive editor of Autoweek Magazine: The Toyota situation is spinning out of control, in my opinion. Once the federal government gets involved, all bets are off. The Prius situation further confuses things, because some are saying there is a brake problem, while some attribute it to cruise control. Then you've got Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood coming out publicly saying he doesn't think Toyota is reacting quickly enough in implementing the recalls.

Some members of Congress are also criticizing the automaker's U.S. President Jim Lentz for misrepresenting the recall fixes, as he seemed to waffle between cars with gas pedal problems and cars with floor mat problems. To add yet more to Toyota's woes, now we are hearing about cars having acceleration "incidents" that don't have any floor mats in them, and yet aren't part of the pedal recall. So now what? As I said, it's spinning out of control.

First and foremost, Toyota needs to get out front of this more, to communicate better. They are in bunker mode, from the president in Japan right on down. The dealers need to be contacting customers, not waiting for an upset -- or worse, panicked -- customer to call them. Second, they need to figure out what the problem is. Figure out what the problem is specifically and get the fix going.

Earl Stewart, owner, Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach, Florida: We at the Toyota dealership welcome Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's clarification of his earlier comments that owners stop driving their Toyotas and take them to a dealership. If he asks Toyota owners to call rather than drive to dealerships, it may help to prevent a physical logistical nightmare but it will do little to alleviate the unnecessary fear caused by his earlier comments.

We believe he misworded his intended statement and meant that Toyota owners affected by the recall should stop driving their vehicle if symptoms of a sticky accelerator are evident. If his words are to be taken literally, pandemonium will ensue as millions of Toyota owners overwhelm dealers who only have the limited capacity to repair relatively few cars at this time.

Daniel Laufer, associate professor of marketing at the Sy Syms School of Business of Yeshiva University: Despite the serious crisis Toyota is facing -- which has now been exacerbated by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's statements to a House committee on the need for consumers to stop driving the recalled cars -- the company can still emerge and reclaim its position as a leading automaker. To do so, it must act swiftly and decisively.

First, the company needs to convince consumers that the problem has been solved -- that its cars are safe and reliable. Both the U.S. government and safety experts have now raised concerns about the car's electrical system. Toyota now needs support from outside parties, such as safety experts who are perceived by the public as more credible than Toyota itself, that its solution actually is the right one. Their endorsement of Toyota's actions will go a long way in reassuring the public.

Second, Toyota needs to communicate its actions within its own organization. Early media reports suggested that not all of Toyota's salespeople knew which models were covered under the recall. During a crisis, the company should make sure urgent facts are disseminated throughout the organization. Finally, and most important, Toyota needs to establish a new industry standard. It has to communicate to the public that it has changed when it comes to quality and safety. Similar to the 1980s, when Tylenol introduced tamper-free packaging, Toyota needs to introduce a new industry standard to help repair its tarnished reputation.

Clarence Ditlow, Center for Auto Safety: All across America, Toyota owners are asking if their next ride is their last ride. Will they be the next victim of unintended acceleration or will the latest recalls for floor mat interference and sticking accelerator pedals by Toyota remedy the defect? Even DOT Secretary Ray LaHood seems to be a bit confused by first advising Toyota owners not to drive and later to drive to the dealer for recalls repairs.

In 2007, DOT tested a Lexus ES350 to determine if floor mats or electronic malfunctions caused unintended acceleration. Under the pressure of FOIA, the agency produced a comical video showing the driver jamming the accelerator pedal with the carpet and floor mat but not one bit of test data on electronic control systems. DOT couldn't say what it did, how it did it or what the results were. Yet a survey of Lexus ES350 owners showed electronic malfunctions were just as likely as jammed floor mats to cause unintended acceleration.

The only clear thing about Toyota unintended acceleration is that we haven't seen the end yet. So buckle your seat belts and practice shifting into neutral before braking in case your Toyota takes off.

Jeff Hess, marketing professor in the Orfalea College of Business at California Polytechnic State University: The U. S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood significantly complicated Toyota's efforts at salvaging its relationship with consumers by announcing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into whether the accelerator problem is electronic, rather than mechanical, as Toyota has claimed. It's yet another blow for Toyota, which, until recently, had what all consumer brands covet most dearly: strong customer relationships.

A 2009 study of consumer brand relationships by TRG-iSky ranked Toyota among the elite brands in terms of customer relationship investment -- the holy grail of loyalty indicators. Toyota's dealers, who are most responsible for nurturing personal brand attachments through fidelity and trust, will now be the face of the company's response team. But industry watchdogs, like JD Power, have consistently shown that Toyota dealers are, at best, average at providing customer with the kind of sales and repair service that communicates that a brand will do whatever it takes to make customers happy.

In the next weeks and months customers will be looking for signs: Can Toyota dealers resolve the problem quickly, with no hassle, and in an environment of care and patience? Whether Toyota likes it or not, customers will hold the very brand accountable for the actions of these dealers. So, as the focus shifts from reaction and reputation management to relationship salvation and restoration, Toyota cannot be lulled into thinking the worst has passed, because those who matter most are now fully engaged.

The opinions in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.