Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Toyota's Foot on Gas Disease

Why not? Blame it on the gas pedal. As though it had a mind of its own and decided to seize control of the vehicle. Remarkably, none of the crazed accelerator pedals chose to cut off the flow of gas and slow the vehicle to a crawl. Nope. When it comes to nutty throttles, it's always Pedal to the Metal.

'My Sudden Acceleration Nightmare'

Reading the mind of Akio Toyoda as he faces Washington's grand inquistors. By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.

Secret National Security Agency transcript of CEO Akio Toyoda's inner monologue as he prepares to testify in today's congressional hearing into the Toyota recall crisis:

Oh what a feeling. I wonder what Hank Paulson does for the dry heaves?

How I envy Ford-san. At least the Firestone mess involved a real defect, a tire spec unsuitable for Americans accustomed to cruising all day in hot weather at 80 mph on underinflated tires.

Toyota is battling a "defect" it can't find and may not exist. Our crisis management has not been the best, but . . . oy vey.

I wouldn't be here if not for an accident fluky and bizarre even by unintended-acceleration standards. A San Diego Lexus dealer installed an unapproved and ill-fitting floor mat in a loaner car. The mat was placed in the car upside-down and wasn't fastened down. The dealer ignored a previous customer's complaint that the mat interfered with the gas pedal. The next borrower didn't or couldn't shift into neutral when the pedal jammed. Four people died in a horrible crash.

Before the accident, Toyota issued recalls and service bulletins related to floor mats. How is this not the dealer's fault? Not a single incident of runaway speeding has been traced to the sticky pedals Toyota subsequently recalled. No electronic defect has been found.

I should have listened to the Germans. They racked up billions of miles on their vehicle electronics before bringing them to lawyer-happy America. They installed a brake-override so a foot on the brake would always shut the throttle.

To think, if we had adopted the same kludge, our runaway-vehicle complaints would probably be in line with those of our competitors. It's the fix that fixes whether the problem is pedal blockage, electronic glitch or a driver's foot on gas and brake at the same time. The only problem it doesn't fix is a driver mistakenly stomping on the gas—the actual source of most unintended acceleration.

I wonder if Dr. Richard Restak is in his office today? Years ago, the George Washington University neurologist coined the term "neurobehaviorally impaired" for such drivers: "He or she acts too fast or not fast enough; steps on the accelerator when the intention is to put on the brake; slips the gear into reverse instead of forward; comes to a full stop when the sign merely indicates 'yield.' In all cases, the response is almost but not quite appropriate to the situation . . . [and] leaves a wake of dented fenders, sore necks and inflamed tempers."

Great quote, but I can't afford to blame our customers.

No such inhibitions trouble the National Transportation Safety Board (the folks who investigate plane crashes). Last fall, they issued a special report on four school-bus accidents and a fire-truck crash, fingering "pedal misapplication" in every case: "In all five, the drivers either reported a loss of braking or were observed by vehicle occupants to be unsuccessfully attempting to stop the vehicles, though no evidence of braking system failure was found." And these were professional drivers!

I wonder how many congressmen were around for the industry-wide crisis kicked off years ago by Audi. In 1987, the feds received 2,500 complaints of "unintended acceleration," more than in the previous 20 years combined. "The defect, which involves almost all makes of cars, causes them to accelerate without warning. . . . Sophisticated electronic controls are now believed to play a role in the problem," concluded the New York Times, citing (who else?) Clarence Ditlow, the trial lawyer handmaiden who will be testifying against me today.

Two years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued its own exhaustive report on the post-Audi fury: "pedal misapplication."

Far be it from me to suggest a defect is never to blame—say, a poorly designed gas pedal and floor mat. But what a shocker that even our San Diego dealer now has hired a lawyer to float a theory that an electronic bug was behind a crash that every investigation has attributed to floor mats?

Trial lawyers love the electronic gremlin theory because it's impossible to disprove in any individual case. But we're here to talk about a pattern of cases. That's what Congressman Henry Waxman, who accuses Toyota and NHTSA of "resisting" evidence of an electronic fault, doesn't understand.

What can "resist" possibly mean in a context where only data and analysis can establish an answer? Eight of the 34 deaths the plaintiffs bar insists are due to runaway Toyotas are accounted for by just two crashes—the San Diego crash (floor mats) and a Texas crash in which an epileptic drove into a lake. What was the average age of drivers in the remaining unexplained (i.e., non-floor mat) incidents? What, if anything, did drivers have in common? Were they new to the vehicle?

Electronic bugs should occur at random. Here's guessing that once we and the feds agree on a database of incidents and examine them in detail, we'll be able to say conclusively whether there's a "trend" that indicates an electronic defect.

Of course, a competent investigator wouldn't pronounce without data—but who ever said Congress was a competent investigator?

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home