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Column: In Toyota's defence...

2010-02-11 15:00

Lance Branquinho

If you have a valid drivers license in South Africa, chances are, you have driven a Toyota – or even own one currently.

Toyota sells a lot of cars, everywhere – South Africa, Europe, America. It’s a massive company, boasting the largest market capitalisation in Japan – which is the world’s third largest economy. Currently though, it’s a giant in hiding.

The Toyota way has always been one of extreme corporate prudence and fiscal austerity. Toyota as a company, one could argue, is a mirror image of its products – boring, but utterly dependable to deliver year upon year. Until now…

Currently, the Japanese automotive colossus is wading through a public relations quagmire of epic proportions. Succinctly, the problem revolves around badly designed floormats and sticky throttles, which allegedly have sent unsuspecting Toyota drivers speeding to oblivion.

Beyond the revenue consequences (Toyota has retracted most of its models from the American market whilst it "fixes" the problem) the political fall-out has been massive, too.

The Obama administration is not in the mood for any more car-related shenanigans after having to bail out Chrysler and GM last year. Toyota’s initial stubbornness to address any possible issues relating to its vehicles has earned it a neat little congressional hearing.

By now you must be feeling quite disheartened about those Toyota keys on your desk, right? I wouldn’t though. Not at all.

A uniquely American problem

Fundamentally, the hysteria around the Toyota recall is an example of the confluence between extraordinarily conservative Japanese corporate culture and frenzied American identity.

I do not wish to take issue with American stereotypes. I lived in Tampa for a year, and believed me, America is a country of highly intelligent people with an outstanding work ethic. At times though, they do tend to get onto the identity thinking train - especially those middle-class Americans who favour Toyota’s boring, yet utterly dependable, products.

If there is one stereotype I do wish to indulge in, it’s this: Americans, almost to a fault, drive dual-pedal cars. Automatic is the only transmission set-up they know.

Now ask yourself: if nearly your entire automotive culture of driving and awareness is based upon the movement of only your right foot between two pedals, guess what happens when the throttle sticks open? Exactly, you panic and forget to stick it into neutral. Now, who’s fault is that?

Conversely, if you drive a manual car, where you know the clutch pedal is your driveline disengagement get-out-of-jail card it’s much less of an issue. For me a throttle sticking wide-open is managed without too much drama.

The numbers just don’t add up

If you take the argument to a level of statistical probability, the idea of Toyotas suddenly being the world’s default suicide car brand is even more ridiculous.

Toyota sold nearly two million cars in America last year. How many have gone wrong? We have reports of a Lexus crashing with four fatalities onboard and a Toyota doing the same in December. Two crashes.

If you’re keen to work the numbers, a figure of 19 fatalities during the last decade is floating around American news networks. That works out to just under one and half deaths a year from sticky throttle syndrome. Compare this to the volume of tyre blow-outs per year and the associated fatalities with those? Indeed, nobody takes a tyre company to task for blow-out, now do they?

Let’s say the ratio of under-reporting (or hysteria induced silence) is staggeringly high (tenfold), it could mean around ten incidents per month, for a year. Do the math – 240 accidents. How many cars does Toyota sell again? Precisely.

My hypothetical worst case scenario for throttle malfunction induced accidents versus Toyotas sold equates to 0.012%. Would you call that substandard engineering or a driver stupidity coefficient?

Everybody, suddenly, has a Toyota horror story to tell.

Even the Prius has suddenly developed a level of unacceptably tardy braking performance, especially on dirt- or ice-covered roads. I drove one for 300km on dirt-roads last year and it’s a wonderful car, with sufficient decelerative capabilities. Obviously it does run extraordinarily low-resistance tyres which are not the grippiest rubber around, but then again, everybody knows that…

My only issue with Toyotas is that they are utterly dull to drive, primarily have beige coloured cabins (which soil up easily) and don’t engage central locking when you pull-away.

I’ve had two Toyota long-term test cars (RAV4 and an Auris) and the only thing which ever went wrong was the RAV4 refusing to start because the keyless-entry went on the blink due to battery power.

Once someone cries "Wolf", there is no retort

If a fair chunk of the drama can be apportioned to driver error why doesn’t Toyota just come out and say: “We apologise for not engineering our cars to a level of infantile stupidity.” Well, it’s because Toyota knows there is no way it can win here - simply because Audi was nearly wiped out Stateside for much the same scenario.

Audi what? Yes, it’s the elephant in the room I am quite surprised most people have not happened upon in the Toyota recall debate.

Back in 1986, Audi’s 5000 series (sold in South Africa as the 100) was the subject of a CBS Network 60 Minutes special chronicling its bizarre tendency to "unintentionally accelerate…"

Terror stricken owners recalled their moments of peril behind the wheel as, inexplicably, Audi 5000s all over America developed a will of their own and accelerated without warning – especially when the brakes were applied. When the left pedal was applied (all the cases, surprise-surprise, pertained to automatics – again) the Audi 5000 would simply surge forward with even more vigour.

At this stage Audi’s boss was engineering genius and Porsche family outcast, Ferdinand Piech – a man not known to gladly suffer fools.

Audi could have taken the position that neither 60 Minutes nor the drivers profiled knew what they were taking about, as it was exceedingly obvious drivers were stomping on the throttle instead of the left pedal and causing the ridiculous "unintended acceleration phenomenon".

Instead, it dutifully attempted to weather the unsubstantial public relations fall-out.

Three years after the 60 Minutes special Piech was vindicated as the NHTSA concluded the closer pedal placement of the Audi 5000 models was a peculiarity to American customers, who inadvertently ended up engaging the throttle when intending to feather the brakes.

The consequence of it all? Audi was nearly vanquished as a brand in America, sales crashing from 74 000 cars in 1984 to only 12 000 by 1991. Ironically, Audi’s 5000 calamity opened up a neat little market niche for a new brand from Japan, called Lexus…

So, what are the chances of driver error not being to blame for the current malaise of Toyota recalls, as it was with the Audi 5000? You make up your own mind.

Thinking global, acting local

I feel for Toyota – I really do.

Personally, I’ve never found the company’s cars particularly appealing. Many of my family and friends have received sterling service from their associated dealers and extracted ridiculous mileages from Toyotas without a mechanical failure or malfunction.

Japanese corporate culture embraces any customer concern as a very personal failure on behalf of management.

Subsequently, the globalisation of this American recall has, to my mind, very little to do with any mechanical engineering principles of containment. It’s simply Toyota trying to reassure customers by taking extraordinary logistical steps to banish any doubts.

The thing is – you must ask yourself how well founded the source of those doubts are. Honestly, are you going to have sleepless nights before you have to drive your Toyota to work because some American couldn’t slip their Camry into neutral - or secure their floormat correctly after washing their car?


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