News Sources: Toyota Only Acted After Pressure From US Regulators To Stop Sales Of Vehicles Affected By Sticking Pedals

January 27, 2010

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.


GM 100 Years Too Late For Its Claimed “First”

January 26, 2010

Corporate PR departments have a habit of making bold statements that are historically inaccurate. General Motors, one of the leaders in fudging history, let out another one today.

The release’s headline was “GM To Be First Major U.S. Automaker to Manufacture Electric Motors”. Really? That’s actually somewhat whimsical, because by the time General Motors came into existence in 1908, electric car companies were already among the major US automakers. Baker Motor Vehicle Company started in Cleveland in 1899. Also based in Cleveland, Rauch & Lang began production of its own car in 1904 after selling Buffalo Electric carriages for two years. Detroit Electric, a product of Anderson Electric Car Company, formed in 1907 — ten years before Chevrolet joined GM.

Historical factoids aside, GM has to be applauded for bringing electric motor production — as well as leadership in plug-in hybrid technology back to the US. While we all know that had electric car development not been abandoned in the years after WWI we’d be far beyond the Volt’s technology, at this point we just need to be happy that the baby steps from tiny companies over the last eight decades have turned into a large jump under the power of a now stronger corporate giant…even one that doesn’t know (or is hoping we have all forgotten) history.


Russo and Steele Auction Tents Fall Under Heavy Wind And Rain

January 21, 2010

This just in…Severe rain and wind in Scottsdale caused two tents at the Russo and Steele auction to collapse. Most importantly, it seems there were no injuries. The force of the wind tossing the tent material and supports have caused significant damage to cars, but the extent is not fully known.

Local news coverage with interviews and video is available at: http://www.azfamily.com/news/Tents-collapse-at-luxury-car-auction-due-to-severe-storm-82320467.html

It is noted in the news coverage that R+S head Drew Alcazar immediately put the safety of attendees and workers first. A leader in the industry…we’ve found Drew to be a true class-act and a straight shooter. Those consigning cars at the show should feel confident that R+S will make everything whole. We’re guessing that as soon as Drew could confirm the safety of everyone, he was hard at work making sure every last customer — be it seller or potential bidder would come away feeling like R+S went above and beyond.


Saab Gets One Step Closer to Death

January 11, 2010

Normally I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape seeing a press release spelling out that an automaker’s days were very short. I must admit, however, that reading yesterday’s notice that Saab’s Board of Directors voted in favor of liquidating the corporation’s assets I was actually kind of sad.

The weird part is that I have never owned a Saab, nor have I ever even come close to considered buying one. For the most part, I’ve never really even liked Saabs. I’ve consulted with plenty of people in the last decade where I’ve specifically told them to avoid buying a car from this manufacturer that claimed so many specialty mechanics around the country also telling Saab drivers that later products were overpriced and too prone to catastrophic failures.

For me, the last great Saab with mass-market appeal was the 9000 from the 1980s. The 9000 was not only a hot car by period standards, but also one of the first stick shift cars I’d ever driven. (At this point in my life, I can’t remember if I drove the 9000 before or after the Nissan Pulsar.)

What hits me in the soft spot is that Saab has such a long history of doing things totally different. In a world of automotive monkey-see-monkey-do, for decades Saabs were quirky. Quirky might not be for everyone, but Saab did provide options for those engineers, college professors and mathematicians who were convinced that two-strokes, front wheel drive, or bathtub design were better for humanity.

GM killed Saab’s value by emasculating the marque’s individuality. With platform and parts sharing with the likes of Subaru, Saab lost the quirky practicality image of the 1960s and 1970s, and Swedish sport-luxury image of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The company had such amazing competition history with the legendary likes of Erik “On The Roof” Carlsson piloting Saab 92, 93, 95, and 96 models to great rally finishes. Ironically, it is because of competitive failure — against Volvo, Lexus, not to mention the hoard of SUVs and crossovers that Saab’s demise is rapidly approaching.

When a company ceases to provide reliable, cost-effective and differentiated products, the options are few. GM simply didn’t see a large enough market to invest large sums reinventing Saab, something with which I totally agree. A company could have bought the line and focused on producing modern interpretations of classic Saab design ethos, but as Koenigsegg found out, that strategy is ripe with labor, dealer, supplier, and warranty pitfalls.

Although GM still claims they are looking for a buyer, the long and short of it is that the world won’t stop the presses to save a company that only sold 8,680 cars in the US during 2009 (and only 124,438 vehicles worldwide in the glory days of in 2007). Just don’t be amazed when some out there continue to speculate and miss what might have been if the company had remained just a little quirkier.


My Great Conversation With Rob Larson — Owner Of Mercedes-Benz of Tacoma

January 1, 2010

After I wrote the original article detailing my attempt at buying an S550, I received a call and two emails from Rob Larson, owner of Mercedes-Benz of Tacoma (as well as ten other dealerships). Rob spent over twenty minutes on the phone with me discussing the original experience.

Rob provided definitive proof that the S550 in question had indeed sold during the time period, but his first priority was to apologize for my experience. He never once asked for a retraction, choosing instead to explain how the sales process had failed at multiple points. It was immediately apparent that Rob had researched the case completely and had gotten immediately involved not for the sake of message damage control, but to understand the situation in an effort to improve employee education and information communication processes at his dealerships.

Like many multi-dealership organizations, Rob Larson’s company employs hoards of people. Nobody can expect that each communication between any employee and every customer is going to be perfect. It says quite a bit about Rob Larson’s priorities and leadership, however, that on two of the busiest sales days of the year, he takes time to glean information in an effort to make every interaction with his businesses completely satisfactory.

As a further indicator of my confidence in Rob’s leadership, I emailed him a list of the specifications and options of the S550 for which my wife and I are looking. Provided he can find the right car and offer it at a competitive price, I’d be happy to buy from him and his organization.