According to the L.A. Times, federal officials report that there were 34 deaths in the past decade from Toyota vehicles suddenly and unintentionally accelerating.
Then again, federal officials also report that there were 34 deaths from people not having health insurance while you were reading the last sentence.
A sensationalistic crash that killed four occupants of a Lexus last year in San Diego resulted in nationwide media exposure regarding supposed Toyota design flaws. Toyota investigated and found that the car’s floor mat had become stuck to the accelerator, preventing it from operating properly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration backed up Toyota: as outlined in the inspection report, “The right clip was installed into the grommet of the carpeting but not installed into the mat. The left clip was… not clipped to either the carpet or the rubber mat… [T]he bottom edge of the accelerator pedal had melted to the upper right corner of the mat… [W]hile it was a Lexus brand mat, it was not the correct application for the vehicle.”
Nonetheless, the incident led to an accumulation of complaints about Toyota and high-profile recalls for problems ranging from Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) to brake problems to faulty steering. The federal government butted in by holding hearings last month in which they grilled Toyota executives about alleged glitches in their vehicles’ electronic throttles; they also demanded to know when Japanese execs would commit hara-kiri to atone for their sins.
As the Times noted, virtually all of the accident-related deaths reported this year took place before 2010, some as far back as 20 years. In other words, motorists are jumping on the bandwagon, contributing horror stories to a ravenous media, and helping perpetuate an urban legend. Or, as one agency spokeswoman diplomatically noted, “It is normal for NHTSA to receive an increase in consumer complaints after a recall is announced and the public learns of a safety defect.”
Toyota’s situation wasn’t helped by a high-profile SUA-type incident Monday on the California freeway (why does everything nutty happen in California?) with a Prius, a model included in the floor mat recall.
As Terence Corcoran of Canada’s National Post notes, these types of incidents and the dozens of investigations that have followed them have never yielded any hard data revealing a design flaw leading to SUA. To this day they remain a collection of tall tales.
Corcoran’s devastating, multipart, investigative analysis concludes, “All of the reports are anecdotal accounts of out-of-control vehicles for reasons that nobody can ever adequately explain… Of the millions of cars on the road, only a few hundred anecdotal reports exist, making it far more likely that other things are happening, including driver mistakes and even fluke occurrences that no amount of corporate fixing can avoid… Audi famously became victim of a[n] SUA craze a couple of decades ago, losing massive market share even though no problem was ever identified beyond driver error.”
Corcoran deconstructs a laughable graph printed in the Wall Street Journal showing that Toyota-related complaints steadily doubled from 2000 to 2008. Corcoran notes that this chart, not surprisingly, precisely tracks the doubling of Toyota’s vehicle sales from 2000 to 2008, thus demonstrating that safety complaints by percentage of market share have not increased.
In fact, Edmunds.com reports that of the top 20 carmakers, Toyota is 17th in complaints-to-market share ratio, well below GM (#11), Ford (#10), and Chrysler (#7).
In order to slander Toyota, smarty-pants automotive technology professor Dave Gilbert of Southern Illinois University recently demonstrated to gullible ABC reporter Brian Ross how a supposed flaw in the Toyota Avalon’s wiring could trigger SUA. Viewers watched Gilbert reroute exposed wiring in the front seat to make the car speed up at an alarming rate, while Ross sat incredulous and white-knuckled beside him.
As Toyota patiently explained in a subsequent press conference, electronics systems do not rewire themselves.
Mike Allen thoroughly debunked this explanation in a Popular Mechanics article published Monday: “Here’s what Gilbert had to do to make his Avalon go rogue: He had to cut open three of the six wires that travel from the pedal assembly to the engine computer… Next he had to insert a specific 200-ohm resistor between the two signal wires. Finally, he had to generate a direct short between the 5-volt supply lines and the signal leads… [T]he order of the modification is important. Apply the 5-volt power lead to the wires before inserting the resistor and the computer would instead throw a fault code and go into limp mode.”
In other words, the only way a Toyota automobile could experience electronically induced SUA is if an automotive technology professor was sitting in the front seat doing it by hand.
Allen notes two other inconvenient facts: (1) SUA can be induced via Gilbert’s manipulations in any other make, not just a Toyota, and (2) not one case of SUA in Toyota’s history has been ascribed to faulty wiring.
So the recent outrage over the supposedly crumbling record of the mass-market car company with the best safety record in the world is due to factors that have nothing to do with Toyota: floor mats not manufactured by the automaker or improperly installed; media sensationalism causing a spike in reported incidents; driver error; and people’s confusion over electronic gadgets they don’t understand.
There’s a political angle to all of this, too. The hysteria is no doubt being driven by protectionism and suspicion of products made by foreign companies, perhaps fueled by demonstrable defects in Chinese products in recent years, but unfairly aimed at first-world technological powerhouse Japan.
I also assume there is scant support in Democratic Washington for propping up Toyota, a non-unionized company that has doubled its market share over the past decade. There’s also probably little desire in the administration to help a competitor car company the President hasn’t partially taken over, like GM or Chrysler.
If I were the CEO of Ford, I’d be double-checking my cars’ airbag systems right about now.