By James B. Meigs, Editor-in-Chief, Popular Mechanics
To judge by press accounts and statements from government officials, those innocuous-looking Toyota sedans and SUVs in millions of American driveways are somehow kin to the homicidal ’58 Plymouth Fury in the Stephen King novel “Christine”—haunted by technological poltergeists and prone to fits of mechanical mayhem. In the midst of three major recalls, Toyota has been hammered by daily newspaper and TV pieces suggesting it has been slow to address safety problems. U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood announced that anyone who owns one of the recalled vehicles should “stop driving it.” (He quickly backpedaled on that pronouncement, but warned, “We’re not finished with Toyota.”) Displaying a previously undisclosed concern for the safety of American owners of foreign-badged automobiles, the UAW quickly piled on. And now, Toyota’s North American president Yoshi Inaba must submit to ritual humiliation at the hands of the U.S. Congress in a hearing on Wednesday.
Does Toyota—or any car company—deserve this? Well, if they are knowingly selling an unsafe car, yes. But is that what’s going on here? Not so fast. There’s no question that unintended acceleration is a serious problem that needs to be fixed. But a little perspective is in order. As Popular Mechanics automotive editor Larry Webster has pointed out, every major carmaker receives occasional reports of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA). In the last decade, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency logged some 24,000 SUA complaints. Less than 50 of these red flags were investigated. Why so few? The main reason is the nebulous nature of SUA. Often the problem occurs once, never to happen again. It’s tough to fix a defect that can’t be replicated. And then there’s the driver variable. As awful as this is to think about, it’s been shown that sometimes drivers simply mix up which pedal they’re pushing. In the late 1980s, the Audi 5000 was the target of a barrage of SUA allegations, lawsuits and press reports (including a notorious “60 Minutes” episode that was later discredited). Then, as now, there were accusations that mysterious electronic gremlins somehow took over the car. In the end, NHTSA concluded that driver error was the only likely explanation for the incidents.
But many safety concerns do have validity, and every carmaker has conducted numerous recalls involving critical safety features of their vehicles—brakes, steering, airbags, seat belts, and more. Still, the fact that some safety problems don’t emerge until cars have been on the road for months or years is not a sign that automakers are criminally cavalier about safety. Quite the opposite. The safety issues that lead to recalls generally occur in very small numbers, often barely rising above statistical noise. Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem, for instance, involved a handful of cases in literally billions of miles of driving.
As those cases come to light, it is necessary for carmakers to take action, and it is natural for consumers to be concerned. But the intensity of the backlash against Toyota is almost unprecedented. Here’s what is being missed in most of the coverage of the issue: All cars are inherently dangerous. They propel their fragile human cargo at high speeds over unpredictable terrain. They combine thousands of parts that need to interact flawlessly—in environments ranging from Death Valley heat to Fairbanks cold—in order to maintain safe operation. Their radiators contain scalding fluids; their batteries are full of toxic acid; and their gas tanks hold explosive power equivalent to more than 100 sticks of TNT. And, by all accounts, Americans drive those cars faster than ever, on increasingly congested roadways.
Nonetheless, driving gets safer every year. Fatalities per mile driven have fallen more than 25 percent since 1994, in part because cars themselves are safer. Compared to those of 20 years ago, the typical vehicle today has better brakes, better steering and more (not to mention smarter) airbags. Electronic stability-control systems have helped prevent countless accidents. Still, even the best cars are far from perfect. And much of the outrage over Toyota’s troubles seems based on the unrealistic expectation that cars should be infallible. That’s an unattainable goal; even well-designed components can wear out and fail in unexpected ways. Recalls are not a sign that carmakers are indifferent to the safety of their customers. On the contrary, recalls are part of the process by which automakers address safety or reliability issues that are often fairly subtle.
So why did Toyota’s safety issues become front-page news when similar recalls by other automakers barely made the business pages? One is the scary nature of unintended acceleration itself, which taps into our almost instinctual fear that our machines will suddenly turn on us (HAL, anyone?). Another was the horrific 911 call from the passenger of a Lexus that crashed in Santee, Calif., in August of last year. And then there was timing. Toyota responded first to the problem of shifting floor mats (the likely culprit in the Santee crash), and only later to the much more subtle issue of accelerator pedals that are slow to return to idle. Those are two unrelated problems that needed to be addressed separately. Perhaps in a different climate, Toyota could have convinced the public that the accelerator pedal recall was an example of extreme diligence in pursuit of safety. Instead, the second recall struck the public as an admission of culpability—just another shoe dropping in a much larger scandal.
By the time conversation got around to disconcerting glitches in the antilock brake system on Toyota’s high-tech Prius hybrid, there was no containing the outrage. (The fact is, most hybrids exhibit slightly twitchy braking as they try to manage the switchover from the electrical braking that recharges the batteries to the hydraulic braking needed for more aggressive stops. Conditions that engage the antilock braking system only complicate that challenge.) Without the previous incidents, news that Toyota was making a small change in its Prius braking software would have been a non-story. Instead, it completed the trifecta of bad news that has made this Toyota’s annus horribilis.
Crisis managers will no doubt study Toyota’s handling of this issue, looking for lessons in avoiding that company’s predicament. After all, it took years for Audi’s sales to rebound after that company’s trip through the SUA gauntlet. Still, some good did come of Audi’s experience: Today all cars have interlock systems that make it impossible for drivers to move the shift lever out of park unless their foot is on the brake (thus preventing them from shifting into gear while accidentally flooring the accelerator). One likely outcome of the Toyota episode will be a requirement for a similar interlock that automatically disengages the throttle whenever the driver steps on the brake. And that would help make all cars just one, tiny increment safer than before.