We all thought that Toyota coming to America would show the domestic Big Three how to improve quality. Instead, it seems that Toyota has again taken the “when in Rome” approach.
It will take some time for the analysts to crunch the numbers, but Toyota’s announcement yesterday that it has halted sales of eight models due to the sticky accelerator pedal issue will have a mind-boggling economic effect. And if there ever was any question if things could get worse for the auto industry in 2010, this at least answers it for Toyota and independent Toyota dealers.
Here at The Four Wheel Drift (where we own an affected Toyota Avalon) we have written plenty of stories regarding Toyota’s recent quality woes. Specifically, the company had issues with five-speed automatic transmissions in its V6-powered front-wheel-drive Toyota and Lexus brand vehicles. The transmission problem was exacerbated by a trouble reporting process designed to keep complaints from ever being registered by Toyota corporate systems, which in turn angered customers, left dealers hanging and kept engineers from knowing the widespread nature of the issue. Even though there was an inherent risk of people getting killed by the transmission problem wasn’t nearly great enough to get Toyota to do more than a quiet TSB.
Toyota seemed to take the same approach with the sticking throttle. Reports today show that despite the new tremendous perceived danger to life and property the company was again not acting quickly or effectively. Allegedly it took a tremendous amount of pressure by US regulators to get Toyota off their kings-of-quality laurels to immediately start the process of containing and fixing this situation.
The issue that stopped production lines yesterday is indeed as serious as a Cannes Film Festival foreign language drama. “Mechanical” problems are causing accelerator pedals to either stick or return slowly from depressed to idle positions. Whether or not cars have had pedals stick in the wide-open-throttle position is not clear. Given the average Toyota owner demographics, it’s unlikely that many people will have muscle-memory reactions to shift to neutral or use their feet to lift the pedal. What we all do know is that the last thing any company wants is one of its vehicles plowing into people because of an inherent design flaw.
Toyota uses a drive-by-wire system. Instead of a cable connecting the pedal to the actual throttle in the engine bay, there is simply a throttle position sensor connected via wires from the pedal. So unlike days of old when a corroded throttle cable stuck or throttle-return spring broke, Toyota has fewer moving parts to address. At the end of the day one has to accept that Toyota probably already knows the cause…
…But like any huge corporation, Toyota needs to find the lowest cost fix. Let’s just hope the answer is something more than WD40 every 3 months or 3,000 miles. As GM and Ford have found out in the past, the company’s image can take a near permanent hit with one leaked cost-benefit analysis that concludes wrongful-death settlements are better for the company than a comprehensive fix to new and existing vehicles.