Unsafe at any speed!

When Akio Toyoda stepped forward and apologised for the ‘Recall’ notices flooding out to over Eight Million of his company’s cars, he was also signalling the fight back for sales, for prestige, for the very idea of Japanese engineering supremacy in terms of reliability and image. ‘Image’ that vital, unseen, indeed invisible part of the car which ‘sold’ that vehicle in the eyes and minds of millions of consumers. The slogan used to be ‘The Car in Front is a Toyota’. That has altered to read,“Thank the Lord it is both a Toyota, AND in front!”. When an image is tarnished, or commences with such a tarnish, it takes both a long time and a great deal of money, to shine that image back up.

Remember Skoda? Remember the jokes such as ‘Why are Skoda fitted with rear demisters? To keep your hands warm while pushing it’ As well as ‘how do you double the value of a Skoda? Simple, add a mobile phone holder, or fill the tank!’ When Volkswagen bought the decrepit skeleton, it took a massive investment, as well a long time, before Skoda jokes ceased to be funny.

So you would think that this problem has suddenly hit this massive Japanese Company like a thunderbolt from the blue? The Japanese would have you believe that, once alerted, they rushed out the ‘Recall’ notices before the ink was dry; but if you believe that, you will also believe that Mr. Toyoda was being perfectly sincere in his apology!

The problem stems from a design decision based on costs; and costs alone! Most cars today are stuffed full of electronics, and Japanese cars have more than most European or American-designed and –built cars. This is partly because the Japanese have always been fascinated with ‘new technology’ but also because electronic control is cheaper than mechanical equipment. Let me give you a ‘current’ (geddit?) example. A mechanical means of controlling the acceleration of an engine involves a foot-pedal connected to a hinged lever by means of a sleeved steel cable, so that the lever on the fuel inlet manifold or carburettor moves as the foot-pedal is depressed. This method is expensive, primarily because it involves not only making things which need to be screwed and locked together, it involves skill and knowledge in how the lever is set and fixed. This means cash, because fitting the accelerator pedal, cable, lever etc. all needs things to be fixed by human beings, not computerised robots. So if a design department states to the accounts department that they can make things cheaper by using a pedal fitted with a sensor, and that sensor then sends signals to a computer, which sends more signals to, yes, the inlet manifold lever or carburettor; what do you honestly believe that very same accounts department will do? So you now see why Mr. Toyoda had to stand up, bow and proceed to metaphorically slice his insides into salami! It is a great pity that it took a national scandal to get Mr. Toyoda to state that he was really sorry!

But Toyota has been hiding a small secret which only now is commencing to wriggle out from behind the dashboard. It seems as though there have been problems for over seven years with certain other Toyota models, such as the Camry, and while Toyota has known about them for a long time, they haven’t printed any ‘recall’ notices for the owners of Camry. They certainly didn’t apologise to Jean Bookout who couldn’t control her revving car, even after she pulled the emergency brake. It slammed into an embankment beside an Oklahoma interstate, killing her best friend. The police report notes that one of the Camry’s rear tires left a skid mark of 150 feet, apparently as Bookout, then 76, applied the emergency brake. They refused to settle any lawsuit, or compensation to Guadalupe Alberto, who crashed on the way to the family convenience store, as she found herself racing at speeds of as much as 75 mph before she slammed her car into a tree. A witness said she appeared terrified as she flew by.   In court, manufacturers often blame alleged acceleration problems on the driver, attributing the acceleration to “pedal misapplication,” or the driver accidentally hitting the accelerator instead of the brake.

I have been at the wheel of a powerful car when the accelerator jammed full open. I survived, as well as protecting my family; partly because I was trained to drive by my Dad, who himself was a superb instructor, but also because of my engineering background. Most drivers today have very little experience of problems, partly because modern cars are reliable, but also because corners have not been sliced in the sacred cause of ‘saving money’. If you check out the Toyota ‘Recall’ webpages, you will see a superbly-produced video on how to stop if your car refuses to do so normally.

So when you are looking to buy a new or newer car, just remember that the glossiest advert, or the fanciest name, is no substitute for a little integrity, and if the marketing is a little heavy on ‘safe’ rather than ‘ahead of the bunch’, the manufacturers and marketers are maybe doing it for a reason!