Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

Driving along 60 mph, instrument panel suddenly dark & brakes and accelerator would not work!

The following is a ?puzzler? for which I am seeking any plausible explanation that fits the facts.

A recent morning found me in my 2005 Toyota Matrix on a divided highway with cruise control set at 60 mph. When I entered a cloverleaf interchange to join the interstate, I attempted to slow down to negotiate the curve, but I detected no response whatsoever from the brakes each of the several times that I stepped on the brake pedal over the next several seconds. When I looked at the dashboard it had gone completely dark! (Until I turned it off, the radio kept playing, and during my search for the emergency flashers I inadvertently turned on the windshield wipers which worked fine. So there was electrical power elsewhere.)

Fortunately the steering did function normally, allowing me to direct the car around the sharpest portion of the curve. The steering mechanism never locked, as I would expect it to if the engine were not running, and fortunately there were no other cars close to mine. I was able to keep on the road despite now traveling well above the recommended speed on an interchange. Soon the curve became more gradual as I approached the interstate. The dashboard remained dark and I continued rolling, though my brakes did not respond except possibly to disable the cruise control. (On retrospect I realize that my car was probably beginning to slow down by now from loss of momentum, though I felt no braking effect when I tried them. Of course, with no dashboard illumination the speedometer and tachometer were invisible, so no visual feedback was available, other than whatever sensation I might have had of how fast the landscape was moving around me. But the cruise control must have been disabled at some point by my actions, or the car would not have slowed down. Unfortunately, I cannot remember for certain that the engine actually remained on, as I did not remember what I heard.)

I then experimented with gently depressing the gas pedal, but with no results. (I?m sure I would have heard and felt any spurt of acceleration if one there had been one.) A quick look down at the floor mat indicated no interference with the gas, brake or clutch pedals.

Fortunately this section of the freeway is relatively level, or at least not downhill. I steered to the right hand side of my lane and at least partly onto the shoulder as two or three cars passed me. I finally coasted to a near stop most of the way up the exit ramp, which is definitely uphill, then came to a standstill on the shoulder by applying my parking brake. Maps indicate I had traveled a total of about 1.4 miles since my car began malfunctioning.

After reaching a full stop I turned off the ignition and collected my thoughts for a few minutes. I distinctly remember turning the key counterclockwise to remove it, although I do not remember whether or not it was in its normal, fully clockwise ?on? position where it should be when the engine is running. (Is it possible that it could have somehow been rotated into the accessory (ACC) position, where the electronic system is on but the engine is off? However one mechanic I talked to later said the dashboard should remain illuminated if the ignition key is turned to the ACC position while moving.)

Interestingly, I also do not remember shifting the manual transmission at any time from fifth gear, where it was certainly engaged when the incident began. However I am pretty sure that I would have downshifted from fifth if a crash were imminent. Fortunately the situation never escalated into that dire of an emergency. What I believe must have happened is that I shifted into neutral when I turned off the ignition, or just before that when I applied the emergency brake to come to a complete stop.

After waiting a few minutes I decided that, if the car would turn on normally, then it should be safe to travel at no more than a few miles per hour to the end of the ramp and the shopping center at the northwest corner of the interchange, where I had planned to go anyway. So that is what I did (at this time the car was certainly in neutral) and everything behaved totally normally, with the instrument panel illuminated. I never exceeded 5-10 mph and parked the car at a shopping center and shopped. Again I moved the car across the parking lot and shopped some more.

At this time, had I belonged to an emergency road service, I would certainly have called and had the car towed to my dealer. But I wasn?t sure what they would actually do with it, and I knew that might cost close to $200 for 25 miles. There was relatively little traffic on the country roads, so I decided to drive home, a distance not much over ten miles, keeping my speed way down, to a level that should enable me to stop if necessary using the emergency brake. To avoid building up momentum I slowed down even further on the few occasions where I was starting to go downhill a bit, and I pulled over a few times to allow other cars to pass me so noone was on my tail.

I arrived home without further incident. I have not driven the car since. The odometer reads about 87,000 miles and the warranty has expired. The car was last serviced by my dealer in January of this year, when they installed the new engine computer board as mandated in Toyota?s recent recall.

I reported the incident to Toyota and the person I talked to said he had never heard of anything like this. Ditto for my dealer?s service director, but he offered to inspect the vehicle free-of-charge. With no other remedy I did pay to have it towed there. But today they test drove and inspected it and found absolutely nothing wrong, gently insinuating ?driver error? but unable to suggest what that could be.

My wife and I are afraid to drive this car until we get a plausible explanation for what happened, whether or not it is some stupid ?driver error? or a yet-to-be identified mechanical or electronic glitch. We are also reluctant to pass it on to some poor, unsuspecting soul. Can you help us?

P.S.?Another fact that is conceivably relevant is that the car had been sitting in my garage for 8 days while I was out of town just prior to the incident.

Wow! This post might be confused with a “Roseanne” script. Maybe the engine stalled. Possibly the ignition switch is failing. How many keys and fobs and can openers are on the key ring?

When I got to the part where you comment that you were suprised that the steering had not locked (why did you think the steering would lock if the key was still in and turned to “ON”?)I quit reading.The engine can stop running (like if it ran out of fuel) without the steering locking. Don’t you agree it would be a pretty unsafe design to have the steering lock simply because the engine dies?

Mechanically speaking, there is no way your brakes failed in such a way that would be related to what sounds like some sort of electrical problem. You can take comfort in the fact that you will still be able to stop and steer if your car breaks down. All that stuff is strictly mechanical on this car. The only way a mechanic will be able to figure this out is to see the car in failure mode. Join AAA or add towing to your car insurance policy and drive on. If/when it breaks, they will be able to figure it out. Unfortunately, this is probably the only way you will be able to figure it out.

Despite an incredible amount of detail (including a lot of unnecessary info), you never actually told us if the engine continued to run, or if it was silent during this episode. My best guess is that your engine simply stopped running, hence no reaction from the gas pedal, and–after the first hard application of the brake pedal–no power assist from the brake booster.

Until someone comes up with an alternate theory, I have to believe that your engine simply stopped running, and that everything you observed was simply the result of that stoppage. Now, the problem will be to determine what caused the engine to suddenly stop running. My best guess would be an electrical problem, such as a bad ignition switch–as Rod Knox suggests.

Ha Ha! Just a bunch of ordinary keys, including only one for any car (this one). And I checked later, the seat was positioned such that there is no way I can see I could have accidentally turned he ignition with my knee. I even tried to turn the ignition with my knee and could not do it. It really requires applying some torque on both sides of the key.

If the engine stalled (as I stated, unfortunately I cannot remember what I actually heard), wouldn’t I have seen an indicator on the dashboard instrument panel, rather than it going completely dark? How do you explain the latter? And if the engine did stall when the problem started, wouldn’t I have felt the car slow down almost immediately, rather than acting for a few seconds as if the cruise control was still engaged?

Actually I did NOT say that I was “surprised” at the time that the steering did not lock. Rather, I said in my post-incident analysis that I would have EXPECTED it to have locked if the engine had shut off. I said this based on (1) my experience with a car completely shut off at a standstill, in which case turning the wheel causes it to lock such that one has to turn the ignition key at least halfway in order to be able to turn the wheel and remove the key, as well as (2) the fact that power steering cannot work in a vehicle with the engine shut off, as one experiences sluggish steering when one stalls out. HOWEVER you are probably correct that loss of power steering is not the same as the steering wheel locking. And I agree with you that it would be dangerous for the steering to actually lock when the engine quits while moving. So yes, by design the steering function is available to the greatest extent possible when a car is moving. And during this particular incident, even though I had to steer around the top of a cloverleaf interchange, it never felt like I had lost my power steering. And therefore I don’t think it ever occurred to me until later that the engine might have actually shut off.

Thanks for bearing with me. I know my post was long but because of all the unknowns I chose to include some facts that could possibly be relevant, even though any one of them might well not be. Without having total recall and with uncertainty regarding a basic fact such as whether the engine remained running or not–and yes, in a parenthetical insertion I did describe what I do and don’t remember sensing, but unfortunately my memory is incomplete.

If your theory that the engine stopped running is correct, and it may be, then how do you explain the instrument panel going completely dark with no indicators displayed? If I recall correctly, normally when one stalls out one sees at least the oil indicator, and I saw nothing. And until then I had had no problem at all that day seeing everything on the instrument panel very clearly.

A faulty ignition switch–which has the potential to stop current flow–could be the explanation for everything.

Thanks for trying to reassure me. But from the outset I fully understood this whole thing was so weird that it was unlikely my mechanic would be able to find anything. No diagnostic codes, and the car behaved absolutely fine when I drove it home, albeit slowly and I did not dare trying the cruise control again, which could conceivably be a critical component of reproducing the problem. That is precisely why I hesitated to take the car to my dealer.

Now that my dealer’s service department has inspected the car and said basically nothing is wrong with it, and indeed they reportedly have enough faith in their cars that three separate people have driven the car at full speed in traffic, I think this one is LOGICALLY equivalent to the infamous “Toyota accelerator problem”. True, noone got hurt in my case, but it’s likewise a matter of the mechanics or car company saying essentially that we have no possible explanation for what happened, therefore it could not possibly have happened as the owner has reported. (In fairness, my dealer has never actually said that, at least to me, though he did suggest gently that a “driver error” might explain it, though when asked for one example of what that might be, he said he couldn’t provide one, that there are too many unknown variables to consider.) The only thing going for my credibility is that I don’t have an accident on my record that provides possible motivation for making up something.

I’m afraid your assurances fall short because during my incident, though I was able to stop eventually, if other cars had been in front of me on the interchange there is a very significant chance I would have crashed into them before my car slowed down (unless I managed to slow the car down by downshifting or putting on the emergency brake, or taking some evasive action that might have caused a rollover). So it is hard to feel comfortable driving this car again. Just because we cannot think of an explanation for what happened that is fully consistent with all the facts I presented does not provide any evidence that it did not happen. (Yes, there are liars in this world, but as a scientist I do worry about people who know a lot about any subject being completely open-minded about facts that don’t fit their understanding. That natural tendency to make assumptions, which are occasionally wrong, often inhibits scientific progress.)

Thanks. I’m afraid I don’t know enough to agree or disagree, but I will ask my dealer if they checked out the ignition. Though if the problem is intermittent or even occurs only once and then everything is fine, are they likely to be able to find a problem there with testing? (If others agree with you, I would be thrilled and would happily replace the ignition even if nothing seems wrong with it.)

[UPDATE: My dealer service director responded that “There is no way we can check the ignition switch, it is in an enclosed area.” (Does anyone have any thoughts on this?) He also said that the wipers should not have turned on if the ignition switch had somehow been moved to the ACC position. But I tested that before the car was towed to the dealer (turning the ignition switch clockwise to ACC from the off position), and if I remember correctly they did work, along with the radio. But the instrument panel was not illuminated. Last evening my wife’s '07 Corolla performed likewise, except her instrument panel did illuminate. (Any thoughts on which is according to design, or is every vehicle a little different?)]

Do please note, however, that the radio and windshield wipers worked during whatever failure occurred. Are they totally independent of the ignition? And more importantly, does the ignition being turned off prevent the instrument panel from being illuminated? When an engine stalls out, am I not correct that one sees an oil indicator displayed on their instrument panel? If that is so, then I don’t see how an ignition failure could explain everything.

The loss of brakes is still puzzling to me. With this car being a manual transmission, even if the engine had stopped running, it would continue to turn as long as the transmission were in gear and the clutch pedal released. You wouldn’t even lose power assist because the engine, since it is turning, would continue to generate vacuum (the Matrix uses vacuum assist).

Wayne, when you lost your brakes, what happened when you stepped on the brake pedal? Was it so hard to press you could get nothing out of it despite pressing with all your might, or did it sink straight to the floor? Usually one or the other occurs when someone states they lost their brakes.

Good question, and I distinctly remember the answer. No, the brakes definitely did not sink to the floor as if the pedal were actually responding. Rather I got nothing out of my pushing, i.e. the pedal wouldn’t really press down much if at all. As for the gas pedal, when I tried it a bit later when I was just rolling along but past the imminent danger of going too fast on the curve, I don’t think it pressed down very far (if at all) either–though I did not try that enough times to have as distinct a memory of it as I do of how the brake pedal responded to my foot’s attempted braking action.

[Also please note my UPDATE above in my response regarding the ignition switch, after further correspondence with my dealer.]

Start simple, get the battery checked, or just go ahead and replace it. my 2?

Here’s what I think:

You had an electrical glitch that darkened your dash. It could be the ignition switch (that’s what I would start with), or it could be a connection somewhere else, like that new ECU you recently had installed. Hard to tell without ripping the car apart.

What I would like to know about the different things you mentioned in your post:

First - When you pressed on the brakes, did they feel extremely hard, and not allow you to press the pedal very far, or did they feel extremely soft, and went all the way to the floor with no resistance at all?

Second - When you made the corner after finding out there was an issue with the brakes, did the steering feel heavier, or did it feel perfectly normal?

Third - Did you ever push in the clutch during all of this, before you noticed that the car was finally starting to lose speed?

There are two switches on the car, aside from the cruise control switch, that will cancel the cruise control. The brake light switch, and the clutch interlock switch. If you push either one of those two pedals while the cruise control is active, the cruise control is supposed to shut off immediately.

You should test this functionality, in a safe location. Cruise should be able to be used as low as 30 or 35 mph, depending on the car. That would allow you to cut the ignition and use the emergency brake to bring the car to a stop if you have another failure.

You should probably sell your car, since this issue will always be in the back of your head, for the rest of the time that you own it. There is no way around that.


[UPDATE: My dealer service director responded that “There is no way we can check the ignition switch, it is in an enclosed area.”

The dealer service director is lying to you.


Thanks for your intelligent assessment and opinions. I’m sorry I wasn’t online again to provide my responses immediately.

By “ripping the car apart” to get at the ignition switch or more, I gather you mean something beyond what I can expect to get without paying a fortune? And yes, I expect I will sell the car and get a new one, or donate it to a local auto school if I cannot be assured that the buyer will have access to what I say happened to it and make an informed decision. (I’m not even sure if I can count on my claims being included in the CarFax report, since no repair work has been done and the dealer says everything is fine. Can anyone give me a definite answer? CarFax doesn’t even answer their phone to let me ask this question.)

But I’m still interested in getting to the bottom of this, so here are my answers to your questions:

  1. BRAKES. Apparently you did not find my answer to your question about how the brakes felt during the incident, which mark9207 also asked me. They felt what you would call “hard” and likewise the accelerator when I tried that.

  2. STEERING. It felt perfectly normal, such that it never occurred to me until later that one might have expected it to act up with the other problems that I experienced. Indeed, that is probably why I never listened explicitly to see if the engine remained on and cannot say whether or not it did. (If I had heard any unusual, discrete noises, I think I would remember.)

  3. CLUTCH. “Curve” would be more accurate than “corner” but I understand the point of your question. Unfortunately I am unaware of ever doing anything to the clutch pedal before I finally rolled to a near stop. At that point, probably before turning the ignition key to the off position, I surely shifted to first or neutral–I’m only guessing all the way from fifth gear, since I don’t remember shifting, but I cannot be sure about that. As I said earlier, if a crash had been truly imminent I am pretty much certain I would have thought to try downshifting then, but fortunately there was so little traffic that was never required. Moreover, if the car had been lurching as I slowed down because it was no longer in the right gear for my speed, then I am confident I would have downshifted or shifted to neutral. I don’t remember such a thing, but it is also conceivable that at some point early on, once I got no response from the brakes, that I did put my foot down on the clutch pedal without shifting the gears.

Your suggestion to test the cruise control cancel functionality is a good one, assuming that that functionality cannot be part of whatever intermittent electronics problem (“glitch”) that occurred. But I certainly will not drive it in traffic myself to test any theories. That’s for the mechanics to do if they are willing, at the right price.