Toyota pays up to bail out a bunch of bad drivers
So it turns out you can get paid for being a bad driver in America.
If teenage boys ever find out about this, the auto industry might be in financial trouble beyond even the rescue of the federal government.
I probably could have graduated from college debt-free.
You can also get a check if you sold your car because you were afraid it was infected with the electronic version of the poltergeist that made the TV go fuzzy in that movie from the 1980s when Craig T. Nelson’s hair was brown.
Maybe it’s not only the lawyers who benefit from our litigious society after all.
This financial windfall is limited, however, to owners (or former owners) of certain Toyota models.
The Japanese company recently settled a class-action lawsuit related to a phenomenon that bears an egregiously misleading name: unintended acceleration.
This implies that your Toyota, right when you’re pulling into a parking spot, might decide it’s actually in the left lane on the Munich-Stuttgart autobahn and there’s a Porsche 911 Turbo looming behind, its headlights flashing frantically.
Indeed, I suspect quite a lot of people, were they asked about the controversy that embroiled Toyota a few years back, would today give an answer along the lines of: “Right, all those Toyotas that would accelerate out of control, even after the driver jammed on the brake pedal. Right?”
Sadly, the facts in this instance were rendered, if not meaningless then a lot less important, by an onslaught of photos of crumpled Toyotas and breathless descriptions of bewildered drivers.
And so we come to a situation in which the world’s largest automaker has to shell out an estimated $1.4 billion merely because some people claim that they think their Toyota was dangerous.
Even though experts — including some of those rocket scientists from NASA — say that’s not so.
This annoys me.
Not because I happen to own a Toyota. It’s an FJ Cruiser, by the way, a four-wheel drive that wasn’t involved in any of the recalls or lawsuits that have plagued the company since 2009.
Nor do I have any financial interest in Toyota (the FJ, fortunately, is mine free and clear).
What galls me, rather, is that people are going to get money because they, or some of their fellow citizens, occasionally push down on the go pedal when they meant to push, well, the other one.
(With most cars being automatics these days, there are only two pedals to choose from; it’s not as if driving a modern automobile is equivalent to playing a pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.)
Among the allegations that fueled the anti-Toyota crusade was that the company’s electronic throttle system was affected by some mysterious gremlin among its tens of thousands of lines of computer code.
(This is “drive-by-wire” technology, with no physical connection between the accelerator and the engine.)
A 10-month investigation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) put paid to that myth.
Which leaves two other potential avenues leading to Toyota’s liability.
Only one of those, though, seems to me legitimate.
On certain of the models implicated in this scandal, the accelerator pedal could “stick,” investigators found. Yet even in those cases, the vehicle’s brakes were more than capable of stopping even an accelerating car. Of course the brakes won’t work if you don’t push down on that left pedal.
The other culprit was beyond Toyota’s control — some thick aftermarket floormats could “trap” the accelerator pedal.
But again, as with “sticky” gas pedals, a driver can avoid a crash by simply putting on the brakes.
If Toyota is responsible for drivers who install floormats that look like shag carpet from the ’70s, then the company that makes those naked lady silhouette decals better beware the next time some guy with a couple of the things stuck to his back window reverses his truck and crunches a Prius.
“The sticker got in the way and I couldn’t even see the car,” the truck’s driver says.
Ultimately, though, this Toyota mess has little to do with sticky pedals and fluffy floormats.
The NHTSA investigators concluded that in the “vast majority” of the cases they studied, the driver of the rogue Toyota either stepped on the gas instead of the brake, or stepped on both pedals at the same time.
And in most of the latter cases, the brakes, as they were designed to be, proved more powerful than the engine, and the car stopped.
The bottom line, then, is that the term “unintended acceleration” is accurate only in the sense that the drivers who fouled up didn’t mean to push the wrong pedal.
But their mistake isn’t Toyota’s fault, any more than Specialized, the company that built my mountain bike, should be liable because I went over the handlebars and got dirt in my teeth after I thought I could swerve around the sagebrush.
I mean I didn’t intend to clip the thing with my foot, so my accelerated tumble into the puckerbrush could fairly be described as “unintended.”
Toyota is not altogether blameless, to be sure.
The NHTSA — the same agency that exonerated the company from the “ghost in the machine” lunacy regarding the electronic throttle — has fined Toyota about $83 million for failing to notify the agency soon enough about possible issues with floor mats and sticky gas pedals.
That’s seems fair to me.
As for the rest of this fiasco — and by far the more expensive part — I have nothing but contempt.
It’s bad enough that Toyota’s products are branded as dangerous based on a fictitious flaw.
Even worse that people are fattening their bank accounts on the fantasy.
Jayson Jacoby is editor