Stop Saying It’s Driver Error — It’s A Symptom Of Toyota’s Electrical Design Flaw

March 4, 2010

People keep asking me if I have taken my 2006 Toyota Avalon into the dealership to have the recalls performed to prevent catastrophic throttle sticking. When I tell them that I haven’t and don’t plan to until a new recall comes out they are shocked, although they shouldn’t be.

Here’s the reason: My gut reaction was that the recalls were not salient to the core throttle issue. This was reinforced with Toyota USA President James Lentz’s testimony to the Congressional hearing last week. Here’s a snippet of the interaction:

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Do you believe that the recall on the carpet changes and the recall on the sticky pedal will solve the problem of sudden unintended acceleration?

Mr. LENTZ: Not totally.

It would be easy to throw me in with the majority of auto journalists who have already come out with their typical knee-jerk reaction that all catastrophic vehicle problems are the result of driver error. I’m in the minority…possibly due to my life as a technical products manager prior to becoming a writer. I’m under the impression that when a collision rate for a specific make or model is significantly higher than average for the type of vehicle, driver error is a symptom, not a cause. In other words — if the argument is that people are indeed hitting the throttle instead of the brake (as was the blame in Audi 5000s) leading to fatal accidents at a larger rate compared to a nearly identical competitor, as a product marketing professional, I still call that, at minimum, a design flaw in respect to pedal size/placement/offset.

In the case of Toyota, it’s much more serious than the physical size, location and layout of the pedals. Most auto journalists did not pay close attention to Professor David Gilbert’s testimony. Professor Gilbert was able to prove that Toyota’s accelerators could become stuck at wide-open-throttle yet not send an error code. Quite simply, unlike every other major automaker utilizing a drive-by-wire system, Toyota keeps the throttle and failsafe on the same voltage plane and the error code is triggered only if the resistance is too high or too low (much like GM ignition security systems in the 1980s and 1990s).

Toyota claims that what Professor Gilbert did to short the system (ie — using a resistor between the wires) shouldn’t happen in the real world. Gilbert has since gone on television programs to show how a simple chafing of wires -could- cause the issue in a predictable and repeatable fashion. Toyota finally invited Professor Gilbert to prove his theory at Toyota’s USA HQ, but this was after completely disregarding the possibility of it being true via PR statements. Unfortunately, given the fact that seems to be the lone major design difference between Toyotas and similar non-surging cars, discounting Gilbert prematurely might be a colossal mistake on Toyota’s part.

At the end of the day, we know this issue more serious than driver error. One need only read the testimony of Rhonda Smith, whose Lexus surged to over 100mph and wouldn’t shift to neutral. After the throttle mysteriously released, her faded brakes were finally able to stop the car, at which time she turned off the engine. When her husband arrived he placed the car into neutral so the tow truck could pull it, at which time the vehicle attempted to start itself like it was straight out of Steven King’s Christine. Think Mr. and Mrs. Smith were lying? The tow truck driver signed an avadavat, because he witnessed the whole damn thing.

Driver error, my ass!


Toyoda Goes To D.C. — Part Ni

February 24, 2010

I’m giving my awards for best questions by Members of Congress to two individuals representing totally different political backgrounds. Rep. Chaffetz from Provo, UT, a young guy asked great questions regarding if Toyoda and Inaba believed:

  • NHTSA was at all influenced by American unions?
  • Toyota was treated the same way by NHTSA as GM, Ford, etc..?
  • NHTSA and Toyota (or any other automaker) were too “close”?
  • If the two former NHTSA employees represented a too close relationship.

    All very non-Congressional-like questions, because they were important, concise and thoughtful. They were answered with “no”, “yes”, “no”, and an explanation that the two employees are experts in their fields, and are an asset no matter from which organization they were recruited.

    Then Dennis Kucinich asked if Toyota ever had meetings to discuss the financial considerations of a recall (or discuss with attorneys the financial impact of admitting a problem). When the answer seemed too generic, Rep. Kucinich clarified and asked for specific, direct answers. The answers from Toyoda and Inaba: no discussions, and nothing is worth more to Toyota than customer trust.

  • Toyoda Talks to Congress

    February 24, 2010

    Mr. Toyoda of Toyota is speaking in a Congressional hearing right now. He did what seemingly no other company head testifying in front of Congress has ever done: accept responsibility and apologize. The Members of the Congressional Committee almost don’t know what to do with themselves, since they’re used to typical corporate legal talk and skirting admissions of guilt.

    Most importantly, Toyota committed on record to start sharing problem reporting data collected via dealer networks and consumer telephone lines with the NHTSA, which would make it the first auto company to do so.

  • Mr. Toyoda read his opening remarks in English, but has used a translator for questions and answers.
  • Mr. Yoshimi Inaba, COO and head of Toyota NA has been responding to questions in English. He bears a striking physical and vocal similarity to George “Lt. Sulu” Takei.
  • Both Republicans and Democrats have asked some interesting questions of Toyota representatives, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Dems and GOP can’t agree on much, but they seem to be in agreement that having no real standards for how a car gets recalled isn’t great and gives credence to conspiracy theorists who actually do believe that GM and Ford get off easier than Toyota.
  • The huge exception is Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative from D.C., who continues to a) show a complete lack of understanding of cars and the industry, b) keeps hinting that the best course of action is more laws, regluations and requirements (for black boxes, etc…) and c) even demanded to know if her own personal Toyota Camry Hybrid “would EVER be recalled” after complaining that she bought the car reluctantly, because the Americans didn’t produce hybrids. When Mr. Inaba responded that her car is American, being built in America with largely American-sourced parts, EHN responded with “so you’re saying it’s the American’s fault?” She couldn’t understand that Mr. Inaba was simply saying that she bought an American car — more American than many so-called American cars, but EHN couldn’t grasp the concept, instead believing that Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Inaba were skirting blame. Thank god she has no vote!!!

  • Conspiracy Theorists Unite: Are Toyota’s Problems A Part of The US Government Stimulus Plan?

    February 22, 2010

    I’m going to throw a Flintstone wooly mammoth-sized bone to the conspiracy theorists out there. It is possible that Toyota’s recent problems are rooted in a plot by the US government to recoup its investment in GM and spur job growth in other American factories related to domestic auto production?

    Simply put, America has a lot riding on the success of GM and Ford. For starters, there’s the bailout cash thrown at GM. (Hey, what’s five or ten billion dollars between friends?) Then there are the hundreds of thousands of jobs directly related to auto production…and millions indirectly linked.

    Of course, one cannot discount the ego factor. In a country where American Exceptionalism is a religion (albeit, usually by the most world-average examples of our society), the fact that Toyota was the best selling brand has the flag-waving Camaro-driving masses (who don’t realize the all-American Camaro has long been built in Canada) close to total cardiac arrest.

    So one must ask: what is the easiest way to stimulate GM and Ford’s sales, creating more jobs to meet higher demand, and allowing GM to repay its loans from the government? The answer seems to be: take out number one Toyota.

    “Attack your competitor’s largest strength” is right from the Karl Rove playbook. In Toyota’s case, its sales are based on a long-standing reputation for quality. Unlike Ford and GM, which can only advertise their own individual wins in quality surveys, good old Uncle Sam can annihilate a reputation with one good press conference. After all, the regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can put into doubt everything you’ve believed about a vehicle and the company that produced it by issuing a well publicized recall with some additional words about a possible cover-up.

    Over 400 million vehicles have been the subject of automotive recalls since 1966. That’s an average of almost 9.1 million recalled vehicles every single year. There are about four million Toyotas involved in recalls right now, and that number could climb if the Corolla is recalled. Keep in mind, though, that over 14 million Fords were recalled for faulty cruise control units that could literally catch fire with the vehicle inactive in a garage and burn down a house while the owners slept.

    While the Ford recall (as well as the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire one) were top news for a while, neither had the government calling into question the automaker’s business practices in a similar way to the current Toyota recall. Indeed, for a fairly limited number of reported issues, the company’s best-selling products have been tainted. Basically, the only Toyotas of mass interest not on the list are the Sienna minivan and the company’s Tundra and Tacoma trucks.

    Kill number one, make Ford and GM leaders again and promote American financial interest. Sounds plausible, huh?

    Actually, conspiracy theorists and anti-government types — maybe it’s just that Toyota has been producing cut-cornered products for years and it has taken America decades to cut through the marketing to realize that Toyota is really no better than Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, or Nissan. Tell people enough times that something is high quality, and even when it isn’t working right, the owners will ignore the issue and maintain the illusion. Perception is exactly how JD Powers surveys for initial and long-term vehicle quality can time-and-time-again find huge differences between nearly identical badge-engineered vehicles from different brands.

    At least Toyota can rest peacefully knowing that whether its quality issues are real or a government conspiracy, people have been buying Land Rovers and VWs for over a half-century, and they’ve always been made like crap.

    Toyota’s Newest Television Ad

    February 8, 2010

    I caught Toyota’s new mea culpa television advertisement this morning. Evidently, it has been running on such high-rotation that people are starting to think it’s the video for the latest Beyonce song.

    The advertisement is such a boilerplate corporate job that it almost looks like a Saturday Night Live parody. It starts out with black and white photos from the earliest Hollywood Toyota dealership. Quickly it moves to shots of good old red-blooded Americans building Toyotas in the factory.

    Since video is nothing without audio, there’s the requisite soothing piano to calm the scared and frustrated nerves of the customer. Then the ace-in-the-hole: the smooth-voiced narrator pulls out the “we’ve let you down…we’ve let ourselves down”. All we’re missing here is the crying Native American chief for pure cheese-effect.

    As an automotive journalist who witnessed his first television advertisement copy (for the local Diabetes Bike-A-Thon) aired while in fourth grade, I give the Toyota spot a solid C-minus. It lacks creativity, context, and looks and sounds like a big corporation that is sorry for getting caught.

    Instead of the bogus mea culpa, Toyota would have been much better-off doing a quick explanation of its problems. Just off-hand (really– just stream of consciousness), I’d think about something also along the lines of “there are thousands of parts and hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code that go into making any modern car run. Every model from all makes has parts fail, resulting in technical service bulletins and even recalls. However, at Toyota we’re known and have staked our reputation on being better than the rest. Recently we’ve discovered that a couple of parts and a few software commands were not created to the standard we require, so we’ve engineered fixes and along with our factory-supported dealerships, we’re going to get them into every Toyota…quickly, safely and with no excuses.”

    I would also add somewhere that “this is not the fault of the hard-working men and women on the production lines.” After all, the failures have been in the engineering of the parts and software, not how they were assembled.

    At the end of the day, it’s a hard line to walk for a company. It needs to admit fault and ask forgiveness, but it also can’t scare people into thinking that this a more dangerous, more widespread problem than it really is. Of course, when a company shuts down its production lines, halts sales of many of its vehicles and has the nightly news programs talking about stuck throttles and no brakes, there’s really little way of making it sound any worse…

    …unless your apology sounds like parody.

    Toyota’s Uphill Battle — With Stuck Throttle And No Brakes

    February 4, 2010

    In the last week or so it seems I get more questions about Toyota from readers than I do requests for sweets from my children. Whether it’s about the sticking accelerator recall, the Prius braking issue, the five-speed automatic transmission software maladies, or the effect of all these on Toyota’s long-term health, there is no lack of interest out there in getting good answers.

    There are two big factors at play that the evening news and even automotive magazines don’t want to talk about (and, of course, I will). The first has something to do with the demographics and psychographics of Toyota and Lexus buyers — they aren’t, on average, “car people”. Indeed, I’ve long referred to Toyotas and Lexus vehicles as “cars for people who don’t like cars”. Obviously this is a gross generalization, as I’m a die-hard car guy and when I’m not piloting something stupid like a Corvette, Ferrari, Triumph, or old truck, I’m driving my kids to school in an ’06 Avalon. The prime market for Toyota, however, has been people not looking for a vehicle for fun or to fulfill an ego need, but rather as a safe, reliable, ergonomic appliance to get them reliably and economically from point A to point B.

    Consequently, Toyota and Lexus owners generally don’t have a good understanding of automotive technology and/or history from which to draw conclusions regarding the current issues. While the Toyota (and especially Lexus) ownership group compares well to competitors’ in terms of academic and professional success, these are not people who are going to research issues within context of the industry. They just want to know a) if there is a problem that affects them, b) if it does when it can be fixed, and c) if the car is safe to drive until said solution can be implemented. If any part of the explanation isn’t clear…which it has not been, then the problem is compounded.

    This is just half of Toyota’s dire big picture situation, though.

    The other factor is that Toyota and Lexus have reached leadership positions in their respective classes based almost entirely on the image of quality. People haven’t been buying Camrys, Siennnas, ES350s, or Highlanders for their speed, luxury, handling, or sex appeal. Hell, even the Lexus LS series has been developed as a reliable, lower-cost alternative to Mercedes S-Class (with derivative styling, to boot).

    So in the absence of this core value proposition, consumers have no reason to buy a Toyota or Lexus.

    Talking heads have put blame all over the place — from design failure on the part of the OEM pedal supplier to an internal management structure overwhelmed by far too rapid market growth. Based on my traditional business education and years in management, I’d call these knee-jerk catch-all diagnoses (like “spastic colon” or “irritable bowel”) rather than meaningful analysis of strategic and tactical failures.

    There are tremendous challenges for Toyota going forward. First, they have to identify what is actually causing all of the accelerator and braking issues in its cars, then they have to figure out how to actually fix millions of cars quickly.

    Next they have to identify the source of the product management issues that led to the failures. In modern times quality is defined as the failure rate engineered into any given component, because while it is possible to make anything fail-safe, the cost to do so is unreasonable from a business case standpoint. That said, an analysis needs to be done for each failure of how the culprit system was engineered and if the malfunction can find a causal or associative relationship with a specific benefit like increased profit, better mpg, use of a preferred business supplier.

    Most importantly, Toyota has to fix the self-inflicted damage done to its reputation…and it better start really quickly. Obviously this begins with solving these issues in all of its vehicles, but it also needs to include the shortcomings in its problem-reporting process, which according to Toyota Media Manager Bill Kwong completely and entirely disregards third-party collected information, even if it is a consumer complaint site with thousands of confirmed, actionable reports. Toyota will only consider and act on information reported from dealers via district managers and from the miniscule percentage of owners who use the toll-free Toyota Customer Service hotline.

    Finally, what nobody else has brought up (so allow me to do so), is that Toyota must then move beyond marketing one-trick ponies. One can’t sell only on the basis of quality if quality is in doubt. As for the two cars in Toyota’s lineup that aren’t marketed based on quality alone, the Corolla and Prius: I have two words: Chevy Volt. You can’t sell only on gas mileage once these models look like Bugatti Veyrons at wide-open-throttle compared to the Chevy Volt’s 200-mpg.

    At the end of the day, the moment the US Secretary of Transportation went on record saying Toyota, with its perceived primary value proposition of quality, not only now suffers severe safety issues across the majority of its product offerings, but also systematically worked to hide the problem from regulators and avoid recalls…well, this is a disaster of Andy Dick at Mardi Gras proportions. Excuses and blocking the truth is something Americans expect from Ford (Pinto and Mustang gas tanks, Explorer rollover issues, fire-starting cruise controls, Crown Vicky stuck accelerators) and GM (side-saddle gas tanks, bad steering and motor mounts in the early 1970s), but not from Toyota.

    Actually, it isn’t a disaster for everyone. Ford and GM sales are up. And come to think of it, Audi has to be happy that “unintended acceleration” will no longer be associated only with its brand.

    And just like Audi, Toyota can expect to spend millions of dollars and decades of time to repair the damage to its reputation. Might we suggest taking a page from Audi’s book and engineer in performance, design, ergonomics, image, luxury…and also quality. If there’s one thing that Land Rover and Fiat have proven time and time again, people will buy the least reliable vehicles on the market, provided said vehicle offers more to the driver than the perceived or actual quality of its parts.

    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.