Before we jump into this one, it’s important to lay out a few caveats. The first is that, in general, TTAC doesn’t do recalls. It’s impossible to cover them with any fairness, and most of the time they’re inconsequential or hard to verify. The second is that TTAC really, really doesn’t do sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) scares. If someone tells you their throttle sticks wide open at precisely the same time as their brakes fail, they’re either covering for their own incompetence or looking for a buck. Period. Now, the proliferation of computer controls may have introduced a greater possibility of simultaneous system failures than existed on old, mechanically-actuated brakes and throttles. In fact, the recent rash of SUA complaints involving Toyota and Lexus models had me wondering if ghosts in the machine were rendering the time-tested SUA debunking test obsolete. No such luck. It turns out it’s the floormats, stupid. Toyota initially dismissed all SUA claims, but now Bloomberg reports they’re recalling floor mats on 3.8m Toyota and Lexus models for causing the gas pedal to stick.
How this issue wasn’t caught in Toyota’s product testing is a mystery. The NHTSA has received 102 complaints about the mats and their role in possible SUA incidents. And these are floormats, not lines of code controlling fuel injection. In other words, if this was going to be an issue it should have been fairly obvious to Toyota’s designers, testers and developers. On the other hand, Toyota’s dismissal of the early Tacoma SUA reports shows that the big T takes what I’d call a healthily skeptical approach to all SUA claims. Unfortunately, while Toyota’s assumption that people involved in SUA claims were either stupid or ignorant was essentially correct, it neither fully explained the phenomenon nor absolved the company from guilt.
Now, a well-informed, seasoned driver can tell when a mat is interfering with pedal operation. And he can certainly tell the difference between pedal interference and a computer going haywire. More importantly, once the problem has been identified he can either remove or modify the mat before it interferes at a potentially dangerous moment. The problem is that this level of competence appears to be shockingly rare in the United States, and Toyota really should have known it. Toyota should have understood that a piece of fabric sliding out of place would lead a healthy number of Americans to believe their car was possessed by demons. As my man Mencken put it, no one ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the American Public.