Were we all wrong about Toyota?
News came this week that the "black boxes" in Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks, which constantly monitor and record every usage aspect of throttle and brake position, vehicle speed, engine temp and much, much more, are showing overwhelmingly that the vehicles involved in "unintended acceleration" accidents were wrecked because drivers were stepping on the gas pedal, not the brake.
Accidents attributed to unintended acceleration have been blamed on sticky throttle pedals, floor mats which held the throttle open, problems with the drive-by-wire system and more. The problems resulted in a recall of Toyota/Lexus cars and trucks, which worldwide amounted to more than 8 million vehicles, easily the largest recall in automotive history.
The company says they have reviewed about 2,000 black boxes of affected vehicles since March.
But it's not just Toyota that is reporting these results, which may appear favorable to the company. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) analysis of Toyota data recorders found cases in which throttles were open and brakes hadn't been deployed.
In an interview on NPR Wednesday, a WSJ reporter said that NHTSA has found that "100 per cent" of the Toyota black boxes seen by the agency so far have shown driver error was the cause of every accident. It's not known exactly how many black boxes NHTSA has examined.
This report will stir up some very interesting conjecture focusing mostly on the politics of this massive recall, which has forever changed the way Japanese industry will handle bad news coming from their own companies. And we also need to talk about one of world's biggest problems -- how some of us just stink as drivers.
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First, the politics. Toyota chieftain, Akio Toyoda, being grilled in front of a congressional committee was nothing short of a nation-changer for the people of Japan. CEOs simply don't do that... in Japan. Well, at least they didn't do that in the past.
They bow silently when there's a problem (but only if they get caught) and everything having to do with whatever the problem is becomes the past; in the public's view, the head of the company has taken responsibility and it's time to move on.
And of course we'd expect this kind of report pointing to driver error coming from Toyota, but the reports that NHTSA has come up with similar findings creates trouble, particularly for NHTSA and the congressional committee involved.
And if Toyota is cleared, what does NHTSA, and for that matter, congress, do? They can't simply apologize and kiss it goodbye. And more than that, NHTSA can't be seen by the American people as soft and simply acquiescing to Toyota; not after the agency finally got some gumption and opened serious investigations into the problem.
Lexus' IS300 is among the cars recalled; call your dealer and have your VIN number ready.
Congress very loudly and publicly went after NHTSA, and we all got caught-up in the momentum and started to believe that NHTSA was literally asleep at the wheel in spite of the Toyota/Lexus problems becoming public. And no matter the truth, two ex-NHTSA employees going to work for Toyota as advisors didn't go down very well with Americans.
Then there's the feeling in Japan (stoked by the media) of congress going after the company in an effort to hurt their sales and create more buyers for domestic cars and trucks.
So what at first seemed like simply a very large recall became nothing short of what was called during the Cold War an "international incident" involving congress and the world's largest car-builder. It all became terrifically complicated and in many cases brought out the worst in Japanese and Americans.
Then there are the deaths, gruesome, emotional and of course frightening and undeniable. A California Highway Patrolman killed with the rest of his family in a horrific crash near San Diego. A teacher dies in the Northeast when her Toyota accelerates wildly and winds up smashing into a tree. And in those kinds of accidents, the tree, like a light pole, always wins.
Which brings us to what's a huge worldwide problem whether or not this Toyota recall and spectacle existed.
This problem is simply that many of us are just plain old bad drivers, the kind of people who, when desiring to stop the vehicle, hit the accelerator and stand on it as hard as they can instead of the brake pedal. Now how dumb is that?
I frequently talk and write about how many other nations, particularly in Europe and Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, have mandatory and intense drivers education programs with severe testing. Many of those drivers are more than well-prepared for the task at hand when license time comes.
The fact that people were killed crashing their cars and trucks throughout the world leaves us with a truth: they say that at any given time, night and day, 10 per cent or more of the drivers on the road are somehow impaired, either through alcohol and drugs both illegal and prescription.
So what's this truth? That among us there are very, very bad drivers. Here in the U.S.A., obtaining a drivers license is not much more difficult than finding the Department of Motor Vehicles office.
If these reports from the black boxes are true, if these "unintended acceleration" incidents show the driver caused the wreck, it seems altogether possible that Toyota can come out of all this smelling like a chrysanthemum, the name of the throne on which the Emperor sits.
What do you think? How embarrassing might it be if, after all is said and done, Toyota turns out to have been right all along?