Toyota's acceleration problem could be customer-based

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Monday, September 6, 2010

THE RESULTS are not definitive, but a preliminary report on sudden acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has some good news for Toyota Motor Corp. Of the 58 data recorders analyzed by the agency and the company, 35 showed that the brake pedal was not depressed at the time of the crash. Partial braking was involved in 14 other cases. Drivers were hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake. In short, electronics was not the issue. Human error was.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda wasn't about to say that when he was hauled before Congress in February. For someone in his position, the rule has to be that the customer is always right, so a surefire way to turn customers off is to blame them when something goes wrong. Instead, Mr. Toyoda blamed his company's sensational growth for its recent shortcomings in safety and quality. Because of the uproar over sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus cars -- and faulty braking systems in the Prius hybrid -- the company has recalled more than 8.5 million cars since the fall. And the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission announced investigations.

As sudden-acceleration cases have come up over the years, Toyota officials pointed to sticky brake pedals or floor mats that trapped gas pedals as the causes. But as occurrences mounted, other causes were looked into, such as electromagnetic interference or other problems with the car's electronics or software. But the recalls and accompanying hysteria that ensued with the congressional hearings, while exposing a too-close-for-comfort relationship between NHTSA and the industry it regulates, failed to provide clarity on what went wrong. That remains the case.

"The limited research completed so far has not led to the identification of safety defects other than sticking gas pedals or pedal entrapment," the preliminary NHTSA report released last month said, "but NHTSA and NASA are continuing to study whether there are potential electronic or software defects in these vehicles." NHTSA got NASA and the National Academy of Sciences involved in its electronic-electromagnetic interference research because Congress wanted answers. So far, the only answer is that the customer is not always right.

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