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.