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!