Whenever I hear the words “out of control” from a reporter or pundit in the media when referring to Toyota’s now infamous stuck-throttle problems, I want to scream. Obviously, I’ve had way too many chances to scream lately.
So let’s set the record straight about how a perfectly normal Toyota, or any other car, truck, or SUV, can accelerate wildly “out of control” with an even reasonably competent driver behind the wheel. Can’t happen. Period. End of story if the driver simply puts the gearshift in neutral (that “N” just above “D”) and safely steers over to the shoulder of the road. And if the engine races until you shut it off, so what? All you really care about is keeping you and your passengers safe.
So how come there are all those reported accidents that involve Toyotas that race wildly out of control like “Christine,” the 1958 Plymouth Fury in the Stephen King novel that was made into a horror film in the early 1980s? I can only assume that the self-victimized drivers have avoided neutral like a late-night comedian. Or they’re too panicked to make that simple selection with the gear lever. Or it could be that some drivers have never ventured into neutral and have no idea of its remarkable attributes as a non-gear.
When people hear about the tragic accident involving an off-duty California highway patrolman who lost control of a 2009 Lexus ES350, it’s natural to assume he was unable to intervene. After all, if a professional driver can’t control a modest sedan, what chance does the general population have?
We’ll never know what really happened in that tragedy. What we do learn from press reports is that the same Lexus, a loaner from a local dealer, apparently suffered “pedal entrapment” from an improper floor mat (one for a Lexus SUV) that had been reported by a previous customer. That driver, Frank Bernard, discovered the defect when he accelerated onto a highway — and the Lexus “kept accelerating on its own” after he lifted his right foot.
Bernard attempted to free the throttle pedal, then tried to turn off the engine with the “start/stop” button, all while slowing the car with the brakes. Then he shifted the lever to neutral and proceeded to a safe stop while the engine made an annoying “whining, racing sound,” but was otherwise no longer involved in any acceleration or runaway drama.
The teachable lesson from this and other misfortunes that are the results of “unintended acceleration” events is simply to pick neutral first. Don’t worry about ignition key switches or start/stop buttons. And about those brakes — they out-power the engine in a big way, so even before you push the shift lever into neutral, they’ll slow the vehicle. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized brakes arm-wrestling a Danny DeVito-sized engine — it’s no contest.
Enter the Sharks
Before the ink dried on breathless press reports, plaintiff lawyers were working overtime to empty Toyota’s colossal corporate coffers. When you combine our culture of victimization, the vilification of corporations, and a big payoff, the result is inevitable. Already the barristers are circling the good ship Toyota, representing plaintiffs who claim injuries (or fear that they might be injured) or might sue over lowered resale values for their Toyotas. In fact, in a Wall Street Journal article, claims for lower vehicle values are suggested to dominate these lawsuits. By that logic, owners of big trucks and SUVs should have sued “Big Oil” when gas prices spiked a year ago.
In this environment, Toyota can expect any morally challenged individual who gets a severe speeding ticket or is involved in an accident to quickly claim “sudden, unintended acceleration” and find a likeminded lawyer to take the case. That’s part of the cost of business these days.
What may be much more worrisome for Toyota is that, unlike Audi in the 1980s, the venerable automaker has disclosed two potential defects. The Journal’s Holman Jenkins points out that Toyota’s earnest search for an identifiable problem that “it can declare fixed” may end up serving trial lawyers more than customers or the company.
Our Concerned Government
At this point, any reasonable person might assume that Toyota executives had enough on their collective hands, with record losses, plant overcapacity, sudden acceleration syndrome, lawyers, and restless customers. Even Ralph Nader weighed in, suggesting that Toyota “expanded too fast and lost control of their quality control.”
The Obama administration has “toughened its stance toward Toyota” and is “weighing other actions.” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the same official who orchestrated the Cash for Clunkers program, has busied himself by saber rattling about how tough he’ll be with the Japanese automaker.
Not to be outdone, Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to hold hearings about how Toyota has handled the recall. Let’s see, a Democrat from Michigan who represents a government that owns a good chunk of Toyota’s automotive rivals. What could go wrong?
So here’s my free advice for Toyota, which I’m sure is worth every penny:
1. Send Akio Toyoda to appear personally. Sure, Jim Lenz and Bob Carter are smart, capable guys, but Akio is the big boss and power is what impresses politicians.
2. Have Mr. Toyoda travel by tramp steamer with a Camry from the Toyota City headquarters in Japan to California, then drive to D.C. It sends the right message.
3. Wear a conservative dark suit and Ivy League tie to the hearings. Even though you enjoy racing cars, arriving in a Nomex driving suit for a hearing on unintended acceleration may send the wrong message.