By on February 3, 2010

Over the last few months, the media have become increasingly critical of Toyota and its handling of what has become an unintended acceleration crisis. Recently, Ralph Nader joined the fray, charging that Toyota has lost control of its quality control process. Has it? Is this crisis indicative of declining quality at Toyota? Should the cause (causes?) of unintended acceleration have been caught during the cars’ development? I’m not so sure. Once the cars were in customers’ hands—that’s another matter, and one all manufacturers could and should learn from.

Let’s step back from any urge to deal out some payback and consider the facts.

First off, if the quality control lapse were remotely obvious, Toyota would have quickly pinpointed it once the reports of unintended acceleration started rolling in. They haven’t. First, back in October 2009, they blamed–and recalled–the floormats. Then, in January 2010, they blamed–and recalled–the gas pedal mechanism. If you start out with the assumption that the CTS mechanism is flawed, you can find a flaw. But I suspect that if we were told that the Denso assembly was the cause of the problem, we could find flaws with it as well. It’s a Rorschach test, with auto parts. Even now some instances and historical overviews indicate that neither of these is the real problem, and that said real problem might be in the software. Of course, all three could be true—these causes are not mutually exclusive.

So the source of the problem hasn’t been easy to find, even once Toyota was aware of the problem. Discovering it during development if not aware of the problem, and so not looking for its source, would have been highly unlikely.

So, how likely was Toyota to learn of the problem during development? At this point the media has many Toyota owners fearful that they’ll lose control of their cars at any moment. The human mind is wired for a roughly 150-person community. So when it hears that something bad has happened to someone else, it concludes “I’m next.” The reality: about 5,400,000 cars have been recalled for a problem that has been reported about 2,000 times. Even assuming that the problem has occurred ten times for every time that has been reported, we have something that happens in one out of every 250 cars and that results in an accident in perhaps one out of every 5,000 cars.

Sorry, Mr. Nader, but something that occurs in one of every 250 cars, and that only if we assume that 90 percent of cases have not been reported, is not a sign of a general lapse in quality.

To discover a problem this rare, you would need to test several hundred cars, perhaps even several thousand cars. Well, these days all car manufacturers build far fewer physical prototypes than they used to. Much testing that used to occur in the real world now occurs in computer simulations. I doubt anyone still builds even one hundred pre-production “alpha” prototypes. A few dozen, perhaps. And for all we know some or even most of the prototypes could have had the Denso parts.

Of course, some parts are more critical than others, and these should be tested more thoroughly. Warned by Audi’s 1980s downfall, every auto maker should probably test any component that could lead to unintended acceleration very thoroughly. If two different parts are used, then both should be tested. And it’s not enough to test prototypes—parts manufactured with production tooling must be tested. Finally, if there’s anything an engineer is unlikely to do but that a dealer or car owner might do—like install floormats incorrectly—then test that, too.

No doubt every auto maker does the above to some extent. Do some do more than Toyota? Without the benefit of hindsight, should we expect Toyota to have done more testing than it did? I personally have no idea. I strongly suspect that even a thorough testing regimen might have failed to discover the problem with the pedal assembly, and that just about any other auto maker could have ended up where Toyota is now.

The floormats, on the other hand, are one of those things engineers might not have considered since they often assume that the vehicle will be operated as intended, and that operator error is not their problem. We’re used to this from the Germans. Apparently it affects Japanese and American engineers as well.

Moving on…once production starts a few hundred “pilot” cars are distributed to employees to drive and note any problems. This brings up the third piece of the puzzle: the amount of time the car must be tested before the problem occurs. This clearly isn’t a problem that happens every time the car is driven, or even during the first 10,000 miles.

During development, only a small number of prototypes are driven more than a few thousand miles. And hardly any of the pilot build cars accumulate more than a few thousand miles before being sold to dealers as “executive demos.” Compressed development schedules play a role. Led by Toyota, auto makers spend far fewer months developing a car than they used to. This translates to less time for a problem to appear during prototype testing.

Put all of the pieces together, and any problem that strikes a very small percentage of cars only after these cars have been on the road for a while is not likely to be discovered during the car’s development.

Of course, there could yet be a smoking gun: it could turn out that someone did notice the unintended acceleration problem within Toyota, and they either decided not to pursue it or tried to pursue it and were blocked by others within the company. But there’s no hint of this yet.

Move beyond product development and Toyota becomes more culpable. The pedal recall includes one five-year-old model, the 2005 Avalon. Some reported cases include 2005 Camrys (though these aren’t included in the pedal recall). Even if a problem that affects a small percentage of cars didn’t pop up during development, it clearly started popping up once hundreds of thousands of cars were in customers’ hands. Dealers must have been aware of multiple cases of unintended acceleration by 2007 or 2008, and perhaps even back in 2005.

What system does Toyota have in place to learn of the problems car owners are experiencing and rapidly develop engineering fixes for them? Judging from responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, Toyota generally does a good job identifying and fixing common problems early in a model’s run. Which is why Toyotas generally continue to perform well in reliability surveys. Common problems are caught and fixed. In this sense, Toyota has not lost control of its quality control.

But the system failed in this case—which notably does not involve a common problem. Why? Does Toyota’s system focus much less attention on rare problems, even if they can result in fatal accidents? Does it track cars less closely after the first year or two of ownership? Either of these could be a contributing factor. But is anyone asking these questions?

These aren’t only questions for Toyota. All car makers should take Toyota’s current predicament as a wakeup call to improve their systems for learning of the rare but potentially fatal problems car owners are experiencing, thoroughly researching these problems, then fixing them.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of auto pricing and reliability data.

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86 Comments on “Editorial: TrueDelta On The Toyota Recall...”


  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    This is a good editorial because it really does put things into a much-needed (and welcomingly hyperbole-free) perspective.

    I’ve heard the 150-person community dichotomy mentioned before and the challenges it poses for marketing and PR, though generally in healthcare and IT and not automobilia. Sudden unintended correlation really is a bugger.

    ETA: One point I would like to have seen more commentary on is the signal-to-noise ratio in the NHTSA’s complaint database. From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty high.

  • avatar
    Quentin

    FYI, the 2000 complaints were since 1999. The number directly related to the pedal is significantly smaller. I haven’t seen any numbers related to the floormats alone, though. Any defect rate is a guestimation at best.

    • 0 avatar

      The one per 250 guesstimate is based on assumptions that make the number as high as possible, because I’m arguing that even in this case it’s low and unlikely to be detected during the product development process. It could very well be more rare than one per 1,000.

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    Wow, what a well-reasoned and fair analysis of the issue. Which has to mean the writer is not employed by the Obama administration, or Government Motors (same thing.)

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Dealers must have been aware of multiple cases of unintended acceleration by 2007 or 2008, and perhaps even back in 2005.

    Arrogance cometh before the fall! There is abundant anecdotal evidence Toyota customer care operatives dismissed owner unintended acceleration complaints, sometimes rudely and derisively. Toyota either lacks a methodology for capturing, cataloging and analysing this valuable input or, more likely, grew too big, successful and smug to care.

    It’s human nature to love praise, but complaints are more valuable. Business guru Tom Peters advises businesses to treat them as a resource. It’s a very expensive lesson for Toyota!

    • 0 avatar
      Angainor

      Any chance you could possibly provide a source for those “anecdotal” evidence. I’ve seen a lot of numbers and claims thrown around but very few actual cases (the California crash and the Avalon UA).

    • 0 avatar

      I’d like to read the details of additional substantiated cases myself.

    • 0 avatar
      210delray

      Good point, Michael. Let’s see some evidence of substantiated claims. Even in the Avalon case in Texas, where the car went into a lake, it’s claimed that this was due to sudden acceleration not involving mats, because the mats were found in the trunk.

      There were no witnesses, as far as I know, and a police officer said there was no evidence of braking. But how do we know anything more without detailed examination of the car and autopsies of the occupants? It’s possible in my view that pedal misapplication could have occurred, or the driver had a medical emergency like a heart attack or stroke. Or a hundred other things….

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly. This isn’t a quality control issue? How about this plus Prius brakes plus Tundra engine problems plus rusted out Tacoma frames plus….seems like a lot of issues for a company that has always been smug about reliability.

      John

  • avatar

    The media are interested in eyeballs, simple as that. The bigger a crisis seems, the more eyeballs stories about it attract. Other interests don’t necessarily play a role here.

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    It is time to move on. This story has been flogged to death.

    Gardnier, I worked in dealers service for many years. Unless you can duplicate a customer’s concerns, you can’t fix it. In this many cars, the number of defects is tiny.

    I might also add that owners lie like rugs a lot. I had a lady crash a Neon into a concrete wall and blame it on the car, not herself. This kind of stuff happens all the time.

    • 0 avatar
      Gardiner Westbound

      Can’t disagree, but every once in a while a customer is right. Where there’s smoke, there’s sometimes fire. Maybe somebody should get off their keester and look. Customers are beta testers!

      If only one customer of yours in a thousand has complained, but similar complaints have been coming in from five continents for years, it might just be worthwhile to investigate. Surely they’re not all nut jobs.

      That means somebody with genuine gold cufflinks has to decide complaints are important and install a methodology for tracking and analysing them. But first, the company must stifle the hubris that outstanding success brings and get back to basics, like sweating the little stuff!

    • 0 avatar
      YotaCarFan

      Exactly – If the dealer tech cannot reproduce the problem, he assumes it doesn’t exist. Considering the few pedals that failed get stuck only intermittently, chances are good few to none were identified as defective by dealers. I understand that many times customer complaints are invalid (operator error, not understanding how something’s supposed to work, lying to get something for free). But, my experience as an educated and honest customer who clearly explains problems and their context to dealers when requesting repairs is that if the problem is intermittent or not blatently obvious, the dealer service writers are close minded and arrogant, and assume I’m too picky, clueless, wrong, etc.

      Mat-gate and Pedal-gate illustrate one of Toyota’s weak links: Dealer service depts that do sloppy work, don’t follow procedures (my Lexus dealer was still putting upside down all weather mats on top of cloth mats in the driver foot wells of loaners months after the corporate mat mandates were issued), don’t take customer complaints seriously until proven invalid, etc. Toyota needs to wake up and fix their dealer problem fast. Having an impartial inspector (eg factory rep) at each dealer to randomly inspect work by pulling things apart to see everthing that was done would go a long way.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      Toyota needs to wake up and fix their dealer problem fast.

      In the US, "fixing" politically connected dealers is a legal nightmare.

      I think, on paper, the NHTSA has broad authority over dealers. That they'll never touch them with a 10 foot regulatory pole speaks volumes

  • avatar
    mjz

    Yeah, well try using that rational explaination with the remaining family members of the dead California highway patrolman and his family who careened out of control at 120 mph and ended up burnt cinders after their Lexus crashed and exploded. It may have happened only 200 times and be statistically insignificant, but if I owned a Toyota/Lexus right now, it would scare the crap out of me everytime I drove the damn thing.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      In the California case, natural selection took it’s course. If in 6 minutes you can’t calm yourself down enough to put a car in neutral something is wrong, no matter what the car is doing.

    • 0 avatar

      I own a Toyota and a Lexus and fortunately I’m not quite as gullible. I did not even remove any floor mats (just checked the retention mechanism).

    • 0 avatar

      Ignorance is bliss. There are a vast number of things more likely to kill you than unintended acceleration in a Toyota. Think about them much and you won’t leave your house. Or use stairs. Or take a shower.

    • 0 avatar
      DasFast

      mjz,

      In this instance, was it not determined that a floor mat from an entirely different model was the cause of the crash? Remember, this also happens in other vehicles for a variety of reasons, human error being the most common.
      I suspect most TTAC regulars caught the footage of an excited X5 driver going Bob Chandler/1981 in a gym parking lot a few months back.

    • 0 avatar
      210delray

      You are correct DasFast. An all-weather (rubber) mat from a different Lexus model was placed on top of the factory mat. A 61-year-old man experienced sudden acceleration in the same loaner car just a few days before the fatal crash. He was able to stop the car and dislodge the mat. He even complained to the dealer receptionist, but either she didn’t pass along the word or was ignored.

  • avatar
    rtt108

    The only comment I have from an engineering perspective (as an engineer myself) is … failure modes!

    As an engineer, when I design anything one test is what happens if this part fails in the worst possible way. What will the user likely do in response. How will the rest of the system respond. This is particularly important with mission critical system componants. Throttle, brakes, steering.

    Perhaps it’s due to a lifetime in DOD and Medical equipment. If my system fails, people die! Failsafes must be designed in.

    If this accelerator pedal fails closed? perhaps no big danger. If it fails mid throttle or WOT? What will the user do? 1 – brake. Okay, maybe brakes should kill the throttle NOW. 2 – neutral? Again, override throttle. However, I would think these are so obvious design criteria that I can’t believe it wasn’t done.

    So what if it’s the ECU? That’s more complicated. If you have inputs of WOT and full brakes, and it’s the ECU that’s responsible for the decision and is also the source of the problem … hmmm. hardware or firmware overide to cut the fuel pump maybe?

    Why would such an oversight happen? Did the designers not think about failure modes? Did a bean counter kill a more complex override system due to cost, under the assumption … gee that will never happen.

    Obviously this can happen even to a company that makes relatively high quality equipment.

    This is all guess work, but I would not be suprised to find out a few years down the road that this really was a cost cutting issue.

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent point. Failure modes would be so easy and cheap to put into the software that some very good questions would be:

      1. What failure modes were in the software?

      2. Why did these failure modes fail?

      There’s already a brake pedal sensor. Now, sometimes driving enthusiasts will want to use the accelerator and brake simultaneously. But above a certain speed the use of brakes together with WOT should be a sign to cut the throttle.

      I’m just hoping that this crisis doesn’t lead to the legislation of some crude fixes.

    • 0 avatar
      noreserve

      “If this accelerator pedal fails closed? perhaps no big danger. If it fails mid throttle or WOT? What will the user do? 1 – brake. Okay, maybe brakes should kill the throttle NOW. 2 – neutral? Again, override throttle. However, I would think these are so obvious design criteria that I can’t believe it wasn’t done.”

      Exactly! There is no reason why an electronic throttle control should not be overridden by the application of brakes. I guarantee that you will see other manufacturers implement this in the near future. It’s not rocket science. A braking input, whether it be a single, sustained push on the pedal or multiple stabs at it should override any throttle input in the name of safety. In fact, the multiple stabs might be a more expected panic reaction to a problem that the automaker should anticipate people making.

      And those $*#&% gated shifters are as useless as tits on a hammer, pardon my French. I hate ‘em. Give me one good reason they exist. They are most likely the reason that a lot of people would be unable to find Neutral in a panic situation. Ok, they should still be able to, but it does complicate things. Jaguar, Acura, Lexus – you name it, they have those ridiculous things. If I wanted to solve a maze puzzle every time I put the lever in gear, I’d ask. Anyhow, the automakers deserve any problems they get from that.

      Now, like most things that involve more complexity than pulling a lever, people really need to learn how their shit works. The State Trooper was an example of someone who, unfortunately for all involved, failed at this. He evidently had no idea about the concept of Neutral. Anyhow, enough on that has been said already.

      The thing that Toyota will pay for is lack of transparency. They are going to suffer from this in a similar way that Audi did. They have already flubbed it horribly. The average Joe now feels that they are hiding the facts. And they have. Like most companies that stand to lose so much. Ironically, they will lose more now. They should come clean with the exact models and differences of pedals and control systems on all of their models. It will come out eventually now that so many people have focused their magnifying glass on them. They need to tell us why there are some models affected and some not. What bloody types of pedals do they all have? What are the differences? Why did they choose different ones? I mean, come on, an accelerator pedal is a critical piece of gear that needs to be bulletproof.

      Electronic throttle control has been around for many years. Why try to reinvent the pedal, I mean wheel, with every model? Did they try to save cost? If so, admit it and do the right thing. That may be replacing them with another manufacturer like Denso. It may be providing all of your current pedals and control system info for safety overrides and such to an independent testing company for thorough analysis. It amazes me that a mechanism to generate resistance/friction was not tested thoroughly to simulate many thousands of miles of use. Engineers can do this. Really though, why would they change up the designs on such a critical part without being damn sure that they were bulletproof?

      I’m still not convinced that a “sticking” pedal is all that there is. I mean, my first instinct would be to stick my $#&*% toe under that pedal and pull up, all while braking and putting it into Neutral. If the pedal was only “sticking”, why would it be immune to pulling up on it? Is it that locked? And what about the instances where they seemed to be reported as WOT, out-of-control events? Sounds more than a pedal that has stuck in some fashion.

      A couple of other points… The column lock crap needs to die. I, along with thousands of others, dealt with this from GM with the C5 Corvette until GM came clean. The column lock mechanism as a theft-prevention device is not justified. To potentially take away control of a moving vehicle at speed is ludicrous. The other thing is the push-button start/stop. Why not have an override mechanism programmed where if the button is pushed repeatedly that it will cut power? It should. They have evidently programmed it with the intent that you have to deliberately press for several seconds to ensure that is what you mean to do and have not simply accidentally poked it. Well, if you have pushed the button several times – as you would in a panic situation, perhaps – then the damn thing should cut off.

    • 0 avatar
      JeremyR

      This assumes that there are no legitimate reasons to use the brake and throttle at the same time, or to use the throttle while in neutral. Besides that, putting such overrides in place may be equally dangerous–I certainly don’t want my throttle suddenly cut due to a faulty brake switch while doing 75 MPH in heavy Interstate traffic.

    • 0 avatar
      YotaCarFan

      In hindsight, a feature to cut the gas when the brakes are applied seems a no brainer. But, the ability to shift into N gives the driver a way to deal with stuck WOT unless the trans fails too. I’m curious as to how many brands/models of cars with e-throttle lack this feature. I bet it’s most of them.

      I agree about the gated shifters being a stupid fashion statement (“sporty!”) that increases complexity of shifting from D to N in an emergency. I have an ES350, and I often forget the shifter is in “S” mode and unsuccessfully attempt to shift to P by pushing it forward. My guess is that’s why the guy who died in CA was unable to shift into N.

      The steering column will not lock on Toyotas with pushbutton start when the motor is shut off. It locks only after a door is opened.

  • avatar
    Autojunkie

    You’re right. I could happen to any of the automakers, but there are quite a few things going on here.

    The big one is that Toyota is doing exactly what I taught my former students to NEVER do when trying to diagnose a malfunction (on a car). That is to NOT just throw parts at it and hope it goes awy. They are making guesses without preforming a complete root-cause-analysis of the situation. Telling the customer to come in and have a prt replaced, only to come back and have another part replaced, and another part only adds to the customer losing confidence among other things.

    Toyota should be looking at every scenario of each UI report. Interview the customers and asking them things like: What was the temperature/weather like that day; was there a downshift ro upshift performed; where were they holding the throttle when it happened (1/3, 1/4, 1/2); what speed were they traveling when they realized it started to accelerate; etc.

    They should also be doing MASSIVE PCM data collection and sifting through EVERY line of PCM software code from vehicles that have been involved in the incident and comparing with a known good vehicle.

    These are just some of the steps that need to be taken. It’s a huge undertaking, but it needs to be done. Having everyone nod their heads and say “ok let’s do it” when someone suggests a fix is not going to guarantee a fix to the problem.

    It may not be a lapse in build or engineering quality, but it’s definately a lapse in the quality of customer care problem-solving…

    • 0 avatar
      Mike66Chryslers

      How do you know Toyota is not doing all or most of what you prescribe? I’m sure that Toyota realizes that if their vehicles wind-up needing 3 or more recalls to address this problem, their credibility is going to take a huge hit. Based on the info available, the brake pedal seems like a reasonable explanation for most occurences of UA, so I would be hesitant to describe this as “throwing parts at the problem”.

  • avatar
    Christy Garwood

    As a GM employee, I am not looking for payback; rather parity in the media tone vis a vis other OEMs past quality issues.

    I will take exception to this statement “And hardly any of the pilot build cars accumulate more than a few thousand miles before being sold to dealers as “executive demos.” ” While I will not provide exact details, I will say that GM targets high mileage drivers for these test vehicles and they are not sold to anyone after testing is complete. The fleet is large, the mileage is higher than 10,000 per vehicle, and the driving conditions are varied. Read about the Chevy Volt on numerous sites and you will see more details on how GM tests its vehicles before any are sold, even as ‘exec demos’.

    IMO, Toyota has been transparent regarding the fix. However, I have yet to see anyone define the circumstances under which this rare event can occur, that is, duplicate, at will, the sudden acceleration. Like heart attacks and strokes, the trigger isn’t defined, but the result is life threatening.

    Therefore, I hope NHTSA and all auto makers learn that it pays to investigate throroughly ‘one off’ events that are life threatening.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d prefer the media to take a more thoughtful approach in every case rather than equally blow every instance out of proportion. I’m not a fan of media exaggeration and superficial analysis no matter who the target happens to be.

    • 0 avatar
      Dynamic88

      Speaking of media exaggeration and superficial analysis – much of the piston-head blogosphere was dismissing UA as driver errror – only a month or so ago.

    • 0 avatar

      Dynamic88–

      People have a natural tendency to blame driver error because that means the same problem won’t happen to them. After all, we’re all good drivers who would have thought to put the car into neutral here.

      I see the same thing with reliability–some people claim that all reliability problems are due to insuffucient maintenance. I’d continue on, but I’ve got to go change the lubricant in my window regulators…

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      @ Dynamic88:

      Given what I know about wrecks and peoples’ driving tendencies, I still say it’s logical that the vast majority of UA incidents (even in Toyotas) are from driver error.

  • avatar
    Autojunkie

    @ rtt108

    You got it exactly! I’ve done my fair share of work with engineering to understand and I still think Toyota is trying too hard to push off the problem quickly rather than correctly.

    • 0 avatar
      rtt108

      I do understand that the costs to resolve this are staggering to Toyota no matter which way they turn. I wouldn’t want to be in thier shoes.

      BTW I do drive a Toyota, but have absolutly no worries about this stuff. aside from not having an electronic throttle, the first response to UA is … push in the clutch pedal!

  • avatar
    210delray

    Bravo, well done! In regard to the Avalon, even though it’s been available in its current form since 2005, it’s never been a big seller. None of the other models on the recall list (for sticky pedals or floormat interference) were built before the 2007 model year.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Excellent editorial.

    As you mention, there could be multiple causes.

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    You are 61 times more likely to be incinerated in a Jeep.

    Of 2.2 million Toyota owners, assuming 25% of them smoke, 264,000 of them will die from it.

    An equal number will die of obesity related causes.

    Several hundred will off themselves (and many others) driving their Toyotas drunk.

    A Toyota owner is the USA is 2961 times more likely to be killed this year by a hand gun.

    Yes, we are all shaking in our boots. I will supersize my Big Mac because that is safe.

    • 0 avatar

      There is one key distinction here: people get much more upset about things that are beyond their control.

      For example, rollover fatalities in SUVs can be partiailly attributed to taking a turn too quickly. So people assume it won’t happen to them, and are less concerned or upset.

      One big source of fear with unintended acceleration is that people are always fearful that a machine will stop doing what it’s told and behave in a way that will hurt them. Re: 2001.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      One big source of fear with unintended acceleration is that people are always fearful that a machine will stop doing what it’s told

      HAL actually did what he was told; he just was told to do conflicting things.

      This is why you sanitize your inputs. :)

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      I think you are taking the wrong approach here Canuck…

      These other events are bad too, but are more controllable. The jeep fire, someone needs to hit the vehicle. I also believe this is a very bad defect and needs media attention, it doesn’t mean that this problem is any worse than it is. In the case of the Toyota, you are losing control of the car.

      Comparing this to other ways to die is ridiculous. Why not just throw up the numbers for people who die from heart disease every year? You are X times more likely to die from many other things than driving a Toyota. Everyone knows this. But, it doesn’t mean that driving a car should be any less safe.

      But, to actually know how many people have died from this might be hard to put a number to. There might be several accidents where deaths were caused by a car going fast. I doubt there is a check box on the accident for unsafe speed. And you can’t interview dead people to ask them what happened. So honestly, how can you be so sure of the numbers?

  • avatar
    NVHGuru

    Sorry, but I disagree with your analysis. Having worked as an automotive engineer for nearly 20 years at several suppliers, I have worked with almost every automaker out there, so I know the product development processes at most of them. Toyota has long been a proponent of FMEAs (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis) and other very well-documented processes for analysisng part designs. If done properly, this would have highlighted wear in the friction surfaces causing either too much or too little friction. From this point it doesn’t take that many prototypes and tolerance studies to conclude that the design was flawed. Whether this was done by Toyota or left up to the supplier I don’t know but, in my opinion, somebody failed to do a proper engineering analysis on the part.

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    We can also take a look at the Pinto issue from the 70s, the Audi issue from the 80s or the Crown Victoria claims from the 90s. All of these vehicles were proven to be extremely safe with a very low aggregate incident rate. The similarities in the Ford Pinto situation and the Toyota problem today are that the companies handled it very badly in an attempt to make it go away. When that happens, the gloves come off and the media and the consumer groups will pounce. And to be honest, I’m kinda glad they do.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I think that’s the first time I’ve heard the Pinto described as very safe. I don’t think it’s comparable–they knew exactly what caused the exploding Pintos, how to replicate the problem, and how to fix it. The Audi issue, on the other hand, was driver error, I don’t believe anyone ever proved they accelerated themselves.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    The multiple defects problem in the Toota pedal reminds me of the problems the US Navy had with their Mark 14 torpedo in World War II. From the first days of the war, submariners were reporting torpedos that should have hit didn’t explode.

    Initially the Navy denied that there was a problem, Then they figured out that the torpedos were usually running too deep. Then they determined that the magnetic detonators weren’t working, then when they set the torpedos to explode on contact, they found that the firing pin for the contact exploder didn’t work when it was hit dead-on. By the time they got done diagnosing these problems and coming out with a heftier firing pin, the war was more than halfway over.

    The process with Toyota could easily take another year or more.

  • avatar
    dzot

    I’m hoping all this irrationality brings the price of a recalled Toyota model down a healthy notch. Then I’ll get my wallet.

    • 0 avatar

      I am hearing that many dealers are refusing to take Toyotas in trade right now, and that people looking to sell one are much more concerned about the impact on the value of their cars than unintended acceleration.

    • 0 avatar
      Christy Garwood

      Michael, GM dealers are taking Toyota trade-ins and offering $ to those Toyota owners who want to pull ahead leases.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      “I am hearing that many dealers are refusing to take Toyotas in trade right now”

      I think the reason you’re hearing that is not so much fear of liability but the expectation of an incentivized trade-in program from their franchisers.

      The deals that are being offered are, from what I’ve ready, pretty dirty.

    • 0 avatar

      Christy,

      Are they offering trade-in values close to what they would have offered a few months ago?

      How have the various book values been affected?

      I don’t think dealers are afraid of liability. But they don’t want to pay above market for a car they might have trouble selling.

    • 0 avatar
      Christy Garwood

      Michael, I don’t know what value they are offering on the Toyota trade-ins, just that they are taking them and then there are the extra $ incentives. Something like $1000 lease pull ahead or $1000 discount. Are you looking to buy like panzerfaust? ;-) (yes panz, I recognize sarcasm and I will also take the opportunity when it arises to sell a Cadillac-GMC-Buick-Chevy!)

      Before the media frenzy, GM dealers were reporting that Toyota drivers were asking them for help. GM came out with a special promo in response to the dealers.

  • avatar
    conswirloo

    Even if you assume the worst case of 1 in 250, that is still within acceptable standards of six sigma(1/2 of 1%). So bravo, Toyota, for quality :)

  • avatar
    Steven02

    A few things I find incorrect.

    As an engineer, your job is not to think how the design should be used, but also how it will be used. Placing a floor mat on top of a floor mat isn’t unheard of. In my opinion, this should have been something seen in the design phase. It was designed to be a certain distance from the floor.

    The story with the sticking pedals, well it was redesigned in 2007 because it was found to be sticking. Toyota had knowledge of that problem them. No recall was issued. To me, that is knowing that there is an unintended acceleration problem, but it was filed as driveability.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure, this is how engineers should think. But there are countless examples of products designed without the benefit of such thinking.

    • 0 avatar
      Eric Bryant

      Michael,

      How many of those products that didn’t “benefit of such thinking” involves thousands of components and are expected to perform for a couple decades?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      I very much agree with you Michael, there are countless examples of products designed with out such thinking. I wouldn’t necessarily call them well designed. The CTS pedal is a poor design as well as the pedal height of the floor mat recall.

      I understand engineers can’t plan for everything, and everything that is thought of can’t be fixed. There are corner cases that interfere with each other. In some cases, both can’t be solved. I fully understand that. But, I wouldn’t but either of these in that category. It should be quite obvious that people are going to replace the mats with other mats. And pressing the brake pedal, well, that is what you do with it.

    • 0 avatar
      jimmy2x

      An engineer would have to assume that the driver would know how to read. When I bought Weathertech all-weather floor-mats for my truck, they clearly said NOT to install them over any other mats.

      This is the type of thinking that leads to ladders at the Depot with 15 safety stickers on them, and coffee cups that warn you that the fluid may be hot.

      People have to take SOME responsibility for their own actions.

    • 0 avatar
      YotaCarFan

      I agree that engineers should design things to accommodate typical use cases. However, only so much can be done in the area of floormats. No matter how short the gas pedal is, someone will put in a big enough aftermarket mat and wiggle it foreward far enough over time that it’ll jam the pedal.

      Here’s something more dangerous than floormats: Side and curtain airbags. If you put a seatcover on your seat and the in-built side (torso) airbag deploys, it’ll ram the seatcover into your back with incredible force, possibly breaking it. And, if you’re leaning your arm or body against the door, the deploying bag will shatter your bones. And, if your head is too close to the door when the curtain airbag comes down, your neck is in for a surprise. Similarly, if you rest your hands inside the steering wheel spokes when the steering bag deploys, your wrists will be broken. Should engineers be required to redesign airbags to accommodate these use cases? Or, are warning labels plastered on doors, visors, seats, and instruction manuals doors adequate?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      jimmy2x-
      Actually, an engineer should assume that a customer knows how to read, but doesn’t do it. Assuming everyone is going to read the owners manual in a car is a joke. Have you read the owners manual for every car you have owned? Thinking everyone has would be a bad assumption for engineers to make. Even if the engineer knows that there is a warning on the mats. I am not saying that everyone should read every warning label and shouldn’t take responsibility for their own actions. I am saying that good engineering should take into account how the product will be used and not just how the product is intended to be used because of some lines in an owners manual.

      -YotaCarFan
      While I am not saying the pedal should be 6 inches from the floor, some thought needs to go into this. As far as the airbags, I have never heard that a side airbag can break your back if you have a seat cushion installed. And it really doesn’t make sense either. But, correct me if I am wrong, there have been changes to airbags so that they deploy more safely, due to varying weights of passengers and different positions that they will be in. While, you can’t fix every corner case today in the case of airbags, improvements will be made, and maybe one day 99.999% of the positions you can be in when an air bag deploys will be fine, maybe not. The point is engineers are looking at this already to make the car safer. Nobody keeps both hands at 10 and 2 (or 9 and 3) all the time when in the car. No one sits perfectly straight in chairs. That doesn’t mean that in a crash the car maker should be help responsible for damage done to you because a poorly designed airbag system that doesn’t take into account obvious problems. But, it might be hard to prove the damage was done from the airbag and not from the collision that you were in which caused the airbags to deploy.

  • avatar

    We better start seeing black dots all over the latest Toyotas in the next issue of Consumer Reports. The red dots are now history for Toyota. Folks, we have found a new quality control whipping boy. Chrysler can relax now.

    What a disgrace!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • 0 avatar

      Did you read the editorial?

      Any problem that affects, at most, one out of every few hundred cars will not change the dots one bit.

    • 0 avatar
      blue adidas

      The numbers are so insignificant that we will have to see if and how perception plays into Consumer Reports results. The Camry was already removed from their “recommended” list last year. It most certainly will play into JDP’s results. People’s perceptions of quality do matter.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    If the majority of the SUA failures occurs as an intermittent problem with long intervals between incidents. Then Toyota and its dealerships were hunting for a needle in a hay stack should this problem occur in lets say 1 in 10,000 vehicles.

    An intermittent failure mode where a part or system functions normally 99.9% of the time adds a fly to ointment.

  • avatar
    golf4me

    Having worked as a contractor in the durability testing biz for over 15 years I will say a couple of things. 1) Toyota is infamous for their lack of true long-term durability testing. In laymen’s terms, they think their poop don’t stink. 2) Having worked on a few launch programs for a “real” quality-tracking company, I heard rumors that Japanese brand owners tend to under report problems with their vehicles as an affirmation of their reasoning for buying, and paying a premium for, their purchase. Just rumor, but you know…

  • avatar

    Apparently, when talking privately to the government Toyota officials said sticking accelerator pedals “are unlikely to be responsible for the sensational stories of drivers losing control over acceleration as their cars race to 60 miles per hour or higher.”

    Source: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100203/OEM/100209959/1143#ixzz0eW5CkJrz

    But they’ve also said that the electronic throttle includes multiple failsafes and has been thoroughly tested:

    Source: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100203/OEM/100209953/1143

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    There have been several evening news interviews with Toyota owners claiming their complaints were dismissed. I can’t be the only person who has seen them.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Good article Michael. Since you have a worldwide audience it might be better to lay off terms like ‘alpha’ prototypes, I’ve worked in 3 different car companies in 30 years and NEVER hear that one before.

    Admittedly if you are working to a word limit then writing “protoype cars made from slave bodies with new systems” or “cars built from production tooling before the launch of the car”, are a bit unwieldy.

    • 0 avatar

      Prototypes prior to production tooling were routinely referred to as “alphas” within GM a decade ago. Didn’t cross my mind that it wasn’t a universal term. We all know about beta-testers, who test a product when it’s nearly ready for sale. Where’s the alpha?

    • 0 avatar
      Christy Garwood

      Michael, as a GM employee, I can safely say that we no longer call prototype builds ‘alpha’ anymore. The name probably changed just after you left GM!

  • avatar

    I wonder why they did away with the standard throttle plate return spring and cable that worked so well for years. Having electronics control your throttle position with no redundant back up or automatic override when you apply the brakes is not the greatest idea.

    • 0 avatar

      There are many excellent reasons for electronic throttles. In terms of the driving experience, they permit throttle response to be highly customizable and even altered between multiple settings.

      They might be essential to advanced safety systems.

      They’re easier to package.

      They save a little weight.

      And they might even be more dependable. Mechanical parts can also bind or fail.

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Locock

      Off hand

      Better NVH – throttle pedal tizz is eliminated, don’t have to design the pass-through in the firewall

      more reliable

      Cheaper ( a lot)

      Simplifies cruise control

      reduced weight

      marginally better crash as the abutment bracket at each end is eliminated

      Throttle by wire is a big step forward. When you do it properly.

  • avatar
    kol

    Great editorial.

    I feel sorry for Toyota. I feel sorry for them because I’m still not convinced there is a systemic problem here. This isn’t something which happens in one in ten vehicles or even one in a thousand. It is very rare, so rare that its hard to make any statistical sense. And I’ve yet to see anyone give a convincing reason why one part or a combination of parts could be relied upon to fail.

    A day or two the Wall Street Journal ran an article which had me particularly perplexed. It was about the Toyota unintended acceleration issue, and it showed a graph about how many reports of unintended acceleration had been filed with NHTSA per year. Toyota spiked this year – but Ford was just as high a year or two ago. Yet there was not and has not been any similar accusations made against Ford about its quality.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven02

      Statistical data is tough to interpret. What you see from the report from the NHTSA is 2000 complaints over essentially 10 years. But that doesn’t mean 2000 incidents. It actually means 2000 reported incidents, reported meaning not going to the dealer to report it, but to the NHTSA. Finding out the actual number would be impossible.

      It would be interesting if you can find that article and graphic, I would be interested in seeing it. Keep in mind, this whole unintended acceleration recall from Toyota was sparked by people dying, then more people dying. Although, not the known total is up to 19 people. I would be you anything that Ford, as well as all other manufactures are looking into any problems with UA right now. It would only take one highly publicized crash now, maybe not even a fatality, for this to be a thorn in any other automakers side. While this is bad for Toyota, I think you can see why it isn’t as bad for Ford, at least not yet. I also think that you if you look at that list, you will see problems with all manufactures. Some can be attributed to driver error, but others cannot. Also, holding the top spot in this category is not something anyone is ever going to want.

  • avatar
    Beta Blocker

    Sun spots? Cosmic rays? EMP from secret DOD weapons tests?

  • avatar
    frank rizzo

    I think perception is the critical issue here. Whether or not it is significant in nominal terms, Toyota has crafted their image as one which is careful, thoughtful, sustainable, and reliable. Accelerating uncontrolled through crowded intersections does not fit this image. Frankly, I’m shocked that they’re still running commercials which describe their cars as “amazing” and “wizards”.

    I guess my point is that it’s not clear how one controls for perception in measures of quality and reliability. As a person with a PhD in a related field, I know this isn’t particularly easy. It would be interesting to hear how quality surveys, True Delta and otherwise, account for these issues.

  • avatar

    Yes, this is a great editorial. It puts it more in perspective. The human minds tends to go into extremes easily, and also likes to dramatize things.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    OK, for someone not living in the US, can someone please take 30 seconds to walk me through how the unintended acceleration happens and why it cannot be overriden by braking? I mean I actually do drive a Lexus and have driven other cars, have applied brakes and throttle at the same time (there are times when it makes sense), am quite handy with left foot braking and have out of curiosity tried a wide open throttle with full brake application. The car did not keep on accelerating. Or am I missing something?

    On the article overall, very, very well done Michael! Too bad there are hardly any journalists out there these days, who are capable of real analysis, as opposed to yellow page sensationalism only.

    And I really hope the day, where the electronics will kill the throttle as soon as brakes are applied never comes. Or one will beforced to drive older cars :(

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    First of all, what a great editorial — nice to see some rationality interjected into the subject. I do wonder if part of the issue — and this applies generally to carmakers — is that designers and engineers are so egotistical, that they are constantly re-inventing things that don’t need it.

    90% of parts in a vehicle don’t need to change. A carmaker doesn’t need for every part on every vehicle to be different. They can come up with a single accelerator, test the hell out of it, and then install it in every car they make.

    There are some design elements which should evolve, like the entertainment electronics and drivetrain, as the underlying technology is changing. But the other 90% can remain the same. And they should.


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