Toyota, what's next?

A technical problem is not the real root of the Japanese car maker's troubles. But arrogance is, says David Booth.

Perhaps it's an unavoidable part of being the number one car maker in the world. Maybe, if the malaise that surrounded General Motors these past two decades is any indication, it's impossible to become the world's number one car maker without being afflicted by hubris and an over-keen sense of self-importance. It could even be the inevitable consequence of the thousands upon thousand of managers who run such a monolith getting a little too complacent in their success. Whatever, the case, it seems that Toyota's short reign atop the automotive world has been characterised by a never-ending litany of bad news and histrionic headlines. No sooner had it reported its first loss in seventy years than it has been pummelled with the even-worse spectacle of recalling more than eight million of its cars to prevent cases of unintended acceleration, the same problem that so crippled Audi in the mid-eighties.

And while there's definitely a problem - according to the NHTSA, Toyota receives more complaints of unintended acceleration than any other manufacturer; up to six times as many as GM per 100,000 vehicles sold - it's important to put the mechanics of the recall into perspective. The mat problem may involve 4.1 million Camrys, Avalons, Corollas, Highlanders, Matrixs, Tacomas, Tundras and Venzas, but the problem is as simple as the gas pedal getting hooked on the floor mat. The solution is equally as simple; the modification of the gas pedal itself and/or the floor underneath the mat so it can't impinge on the pedal's travel.

The second problem - the actual gas pedal fix - is a little more technical. The gears within the pedal mechanism can (very) occasionally bind and cause the pedal to be slow to return to its starting position. The fix involves shimming a plunger so the gears contact at a different angle. However, while it's possible to see how an errant mat could cause some of the more unintended acceleration problems, it's very difficult to imagine the binding gas pedal causing the many instances of wide-open throttle that have been reported.

Indeed, CTS Corp., the manufacturer of the gas pedals affected by the recall, is quick to point out that the "slow-return pedal phenomenon should absolutely not be linked with any sudden unintended acceleration incidents." And CTS has never made any gas pedals for Lexus vehicles, which have also been subject to claims of sudden acceleration. The ambiguity surrounding the source of the trouble is one reason why so few seem to accept Toyota's fixes as a final solution to its problems. But the actual mechanics of the problem and their solutions pale in comparison to the public relations disaster these errant gas pedals have wrought for Toyota.

Obviously not having learnt the lesson of such corporate giants as Tylenol (the Tylenol murders of 1982) and Maple Leaf Foods (whose tainted meat killed nine people in Canada) that faced similar circumstances and averted ruination by quickly admitting fault, Toyota has seemingly obfuscated at every step of the investigation. An early mea culpa may well have derailed any further probes that have recently revealed that, while the US recalls started in 2007, problems were known as far back as 2003 (according to The Associated Press, the first recorded Lexus-based incident).

And could there have been any worse publicity than the recent revelation that Toyota boasted of saving US$100 million by persuading US regulators to agree to a cheap fix for the unintended acceleration problems that are now said to have claimed more than 20 lives? Perhaps worst of all, however, is that Toyota's mishandling of the entire affair has experts and consumers alike wondering whether the problems, originally attributed to those floor mats and wonky gas pedals, may not have a more nefarious source. No less a techy (and Toyota fan) than Apple co-founder Stephen Wozniak says his new Prius "has an accelerator that goes wild - And I can repeat [the problem] over and over and over again." He also notes that "since my foot never touches the pedal - [the problem] cannot be a sticky accelerator pedal. There might be some bad software in there."

As well, testifying before the American congressional subcommittee reviewing Toyota's handling of the recalls, Dr. David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, said that he has found flaws in Toyota's electronics that "would allow abnormalities to occur." Gilbert discovered that he could introduce faults into Toyota electronic control modules without the computers setting a "trouble code" (the computer's self-diagnostic alert that something untoward has occurred) or activating the computer's "fail-safe" mode. The problem, claims Gilbert, could create a situation with the "potential to push the system to wide-open throttle." While not absolute proof of an electronics component to these incidences of unintended acceleration, it challenges Toyota's assertion that the computers are not an issue because of a lack of trouble codes.

In the end, however, this entire crisis will turn out to be less about technical malfunctions than an examination of Toyota's credibility. Long regarded as purveyor of safe, reliable cars, the company is now eyed with the suspicion Americans reserve for the secretive and foreign. Revelations that Toyota USA's attempts to defuse and solve this situation were thwarted by interference from the company's home office serve to remind that, despite Toyota's attempt to paint itself as a US car maker, it remains very much controlled by Japan.

Indeed, if Toyota is to emerge from this debacle relatively unscathed, one of the first changes it must make is to cede more control of safety and recall issues to its American arm. It will also have to more thoroughly investigate every possible cause - including wonky electronics - of its sudden acceleration issues. As well, according to Phil Edmonston, a former Canadian member of Parliament, now car consumer advocate and author of Lemon Aid, Toyota must take far more dramatic steps to prevent further cases of unintended acceleration including "installing brake over-ride devices [which deactivates the throttle when the brake is applied] in all future models."

Addressing the need for complete disclosure, Edmonston also suggests that Toyota and Lexus provide retroactive warrantees for 10 years and that "all safety settlement plaintiff gag orders should be lifted." This last point is particularly pertinent in the case of Dimitrios Biller, a former lawyer for Toyota USA whose files, said to show that the company withheld crucial data regarding these acceleration problems, have been subpoenaed by Congress.

If there's a lesson for Toyota and other car makers in this fiasco, it's that a mea culpa delayed is a mea culpa magnified. Perhaps, it's simply an indication of the cultural gap between East and West, but Toyota has obviously still not learnt that the only thing Americans love more than granting absolution to the sufficiently contrite is the moral satisfaction they get dragging down the mighty and unrepentant. Where CEO Akio Toyoda's recent apologies and explanations before the American Congress may well have sufficed six months ago when news of this debacle first started leaking out, now it will take nothing short of falling on the corporate sword for the stench of this disaster to go away. In the meantime, this automotive version of the daytime soap opera drags on.

Sign up to:

* Please select one