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.