Thursday, February 4, 2010

Give Toyota a Brake

Update - March 20, 2014:  The United States has fined Toyota $1.2 billion for concealing safety defects in cars sold to Americans.

Is the plural of Prius “Prii”? Whatever it is, plural amounts of the car called Prius may soon be recalled amid the latest uncanny twist in Toyota's sudden crisis of confidence. Accusations of hiding antilock brake problems join the still-fresh recall for most of the brand's popular models, including the Camry car and Tundra truck.

All the fuss has stirred the media into a froth, because the only thing missing in this story is the girl. We have beleagured Detroit, beaten and bruised in one corner, when all of a sudden, their arch enemy is caught flat-footed on the very issue that recently sent Detroit to the bankruptcy courts.

Not only are Toyota's top models subject to one of the most sweeping automobile recalls in memory, affecting millions of vehicles across the planet, but a significant number of fatality wrecks attributed to the problems, plus high-level disputes over the cause, have made a lot of drivers suddenly apprehensive about what their family rides in every day.

Toyota has made its fortune on a reputation for sterling products with such impeccable craftsmanship that they paint the inside of trunks that are then covered in carpet. American executives have studied the “Toyota Way” in Japan to try and figure out the secret to building cars that last. Of course, the Big Three seemed dumbfounded to learn that all it takes is quality – something Detroit had deemed expendable back in the 1970’s. One unprecedented slide in market share later, the Big Three found themselves in the back seat as Americans discovered how nice it is to pay off their cars before the transmission falls out.

Can you imagine the chagrin and fury at Toyota HQ these days? A fifty-year legacy of stunning manufacturing excellence brought to the precipice of public dismay because of an accelerator pedal.

"Aichi, We Have a Problem"

Here in north Texas, a Lexus SUV slammed into a Tarrant County home last week after the driver reported her luxury vehicle inexplicably charged over a curb and through somebody’s yard. In December, four Jehovah’s Witnesses drowned when their Toyota Avalon reportedly sailed through a Southlake, Texas intersection, flipped upside down, and dove in a private pond. Investigators of these incidents have not been able to conclude the acceleration pedal problem is at fault, but they haven’t been able to rule it out, either.

Last summer, a receptionist where I worked who owns a late-model Camry received one of the initial recall letters from Toyota. It said her floormat could get stuck under the accelerator pedal, and to either pull away or remove the floormat. We guys in the office, automotive geniuses that we are, read the letter after she started worrying about the situation, because she’d bought the Toyota – her first non-domestic car – thinking it would be trouble-free. We deduced that Toyota had the whole thing under control, and they were probably reacting out of an abundance of caution after some goofball let trash accumulate along the floorboard that got stuck under the pedal. Nothing for our co-worker to worry about.

Turns out, we appear to have been wrong. And while Toyota has been rushing out a supposed fix to dealers this week, renewed criticism of Toyota’s engineering seems to be pointing to a defect in the computerized system Toyota developed for their accelerators.

Sometimes Getting the Full Story Takes Time

Then yesterday, as the confusion and anxiety over the situation was cresting, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gets before a congressional sub-committee and, with thinly-veiled urgency in his voice, says that all Toyota owners should stop driving their recalled vehicles immediately. Over on Wall Street, Toyota’s shares immediately sank. It wasn’t until reporters queried LaHood about his remarks in the hallway outside the hearing room that he backtracked, clarifying that owners should make arrangements with their dealers to have their vehicles fixed.

Shouldn’t it go without saying that government officials – especially those of a rank as high as LaHood’s – need to exercise pronounced prudence when making remarks in the face of a situation like Toyota’s recall? Even if Toyota had documented evidence that their entire accelerator assembly was 100% faulty and they had a fix but didn’t implement it, LaHood should have gotten the evidence before contributing to the panic the media has already done well enough on its own to foment.

And who knows? Maybe this is another Ford Pinto story, where Ford had the $14 part to keep gas tanks from exploding in their crude little cars, but their accountants figured paying out death benefits from the accidents was cheaper than paying to affix the part to all the cars they’d sold. If Toyota is taking a page from Ford’s old playbook, which some are hinting regarding the new Prius antilock brake issue, let’s find out. But until we do, should we panic and tell owners of the most popular brand in America that their cars are going to kill them?

Am I denying a serious problem exists? No, I’m not a mechanical engineer. Am I denying that Toyota owners don’t have reason to be suspicious of the car they’re driving? No, apparently we have enough evidence to substantiate the need for awareness and caution. But do you see Toyotas bursting through fences and smashing into Burger Kings all over the place? No.

Plenty of highly-trained experts are on the case. Toyota drivers have been told that if they notice odd acceleration issues with their cars, they should have the dealer tow it to the shop. Drivers of the 2010 Prius should exercise extra caution on slippery roads (a good tip for all of us anyway). Otherwise, let’s not fan the flames of hysteria, tank the company stock, and succumb to the media’s already insidious expertise in manipulating our society. And who knows – this may be just the break Detroit needs to jump-start their own economic recovery. After all, the Big Three may make cars that look old three days after leaving the dealership, but at least the accelerator pedals are reliable!

Of course, I drive a Honda.

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