Memo from Michael: Toyota

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Looking around the interwebs, there seem to be only two schools of thought from automotive journalists about the storm swirling around Toyota.

One, that Toyota has sold cars with dangerous, even deadly defects.

Two, that there's nothing wrong with the cars apart from the drivers themselves.

Blaming the driver isn't always wrong factually (the Audi "unintended acceleration" scare of the mid-80s turned out to be a bunch of drivers stomping on the wrong pedal) , but it's very nearly always wrong in terms of PR and continued business (Audi told the truth about driver error, were branded arrogant and very nearly didn't survive in the American market). Toyota has wisely avoided suggesting that the problem is, as my Dad would have said, "the nut holding the wheel".

But there are a surprising number of automotive journalists willing to make that exact assertion: That in every one of the cases currently before Toyota, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and Congress, the man or woman in the driver's seat screwed up.

But the truth is....we don't know. You don't. I don't. And neither do they.

Automotive journalists (depending on their publications) hop in and out of anywhere from 50 to 200 cars a year. They learn to adjust quickly to the differences between the vehicles. They tend to drive more than the average and as a result, see more motorists behaving stupidly (eating, texting, reading, putting on makeup) behind the wheel.

Ten years ago...even five...I would have been part of that group. Exposed to the Audi debacle, my first question would be the competence of the driver. But a lot has changed in five years. A lot of the functions of new cars are controlled not by mechanicals, but by electronics.

In the case of the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Cobalt electric power steering systems currently being investigated by the NHTSA, the steering wheel physically connected to the front wheels has been replaced by a system that turns the steering wheel into a "control interface". Like your kids' (or your) video game controller, it sends signals to a computer, which then tells the wheels how much to turn, in which direction and how quickly.

Can that go wrong? Of course. Is it, or are the people who allege that their Corollas and Cobalts are heading for the ditch at 40 miles an hour also juggling a Big Mac, a Big Gulp, an iPhone and steering with their knees?

We don't know.

Computer controlled throttles can go wrong too. Are they? Or are people standing on the wrong pedal?

We don't know.

There are investigations to be done. Findings to be made. We'll report them. But no one in automotive journalism knows enough right now to savage Toyota or accuse dead and injured drivers of incompetence.

Thanks for your time,
Michael Hagerty

UPDATE (Monday, February 22): The release of documents in which Toyota claims a $100 million saving by "negotiating" a smaller sudden acceleration recall with the U.S. Government is disturbing. It's also one of 50,000 documents in Congress' possession...with more to come.

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