Toyota’s travails prove no carmaker is immune to big troubles

By Jayson Jacoby March 05, 2010 11:45 am

I’m feeling pretty lucky these days. I own a Toyota that hasn’t been recalled.

Nor has it tried to gallop away on us, like a horse that sees a rattlesnake and spits the bit.

Not yet, anyway.

Although I keep expecting, as I shuffle through the day’s mail, to come across an envelope with the Toyota logo printed on it.

The rig is a 2008 FJ Cruiser. That’s Toyota’s modern version of the classic Land Cruiser FJ40 — the jeep-looking model with a white top that you used to see on TV, chasing wildebeests across a dusty African savannah while a rugged-looking man wearing khaki clutches the roll bar and narrates.

We’ve owned the FJ for two years and change and its gas pedal hasn’t got up to dickens even once. When you push it down you go faster and when you ease up you slow down. The brakes do the same (well, actually they do the opposite, sort of, but you know what I mean).

Our Toyota has in fact performed flawlessly over its 21,000 miles. Given the company’s reliability record, we expected as much.

Although the stock tires were something less than perfect.

They were abysmal, actually.

Even the name of the tire — “Rugged Trail” — seems to me a cruel prank, since the tires were the antithesis of rugged, and ill-suited to most types of trail unless you count paved parking lots.

But since Toyota didn’t make the tires (B.F. Goodrich did), the only thing I can blame Toyota for is fitting such flabby rubber on its brawniest off-roader. It’s as if the company figured nobody would ever drive an FJ where there are, you know, rocks.

Which seems unlikely, since almost every photograph in the sales brochure shows a Cruiser clawing across a boulder field that I wouldn’t go near in any vehicle for which I still have to make a monthly payment.

Anyway, after three flats we got fed up and swapped the limp originals for a set of 10-ply-rated mudders.

I expect these tires will remain inflated.

Including when I get stuck in a mudhole because I decided, quite logically, that since I have mud tires I ought to drive through the deepest, muckiest swamp I could find.

I have watched with keen interest the recent, and rapid, deterioration of the reputation for quality which Toyota amassed over the past quarter century or so.

I have no great allegiance to the brand; the FJ is the first Toyota I’ve owned.

It seems to me, though, that Toyota’s troubles illustrate, and with unusual clarity, the American flare for hysteria and exaggeration.

I suspect a significant number of reasonable people have inferred from the onslaught of publicity that basically every recalled Toyota is the automotive equivalent of a tornado: unpredictable and possibly lethal.

I doubt the situation is nearly so dire.

Which is not to say Toyota doesn’t have a problem, or that it’s purely a public relations dilemma.

It seems clear to me — and more to the point, clear to people who know a lot more about cars than just where the spark plugs go — that certain Toyota vehicles are saddled with design flaws which, under certain circumstances, can contribute to crashes.

I repeated the word “certain” in the preceding paragraph on purpose.

There’s a vast difference between a car that will eventually and inevitably careen out of control no matter how capable its driver, and a car that, in a tiny percentage of situations, might pose a challenge that a distracted or unskilled driver can’t handle.

But I’ve seen very few media reports about Toyota’s travails which even acknowledge the possibility that such a difference exists, much less attempt to delve into the details.

The implication, rather, is that because several dozen Toyotas crashed, and because the company responded by recalling several million vehicles that haven’t crashed, then it must follow that a fiery fate awaits every one of those cars unless it’s fixed.

I’m too cynical to accept as truth such a simplistic equation that stands in sharp contrast to the statistical record.

I’m suspicious in part because I remember a similar predicament that embroiled another carmaker, Germany’s Audi, back in the 1980s.

You might recall stories about Audis that plowed clear through garages and fences and other relatively stout barriers, their bewildered owners gripping the steering wheel as if it were the safety bar on a rollercoaster.

You might also remember that the main culprit turned out to be drivers who didn’t understand the functions of their Audi’s pedals as well as they ought to have.

It amazes me that some people still seem to believe that if you jam the gas pedal to the floor and your car ends up reclining on your neighbor’s living room sofa, but you were aiming for your driveway, then what happened is not your fault but rather the result of “unintended acceleration.”

The comparison between Audi’s predicament and Toyota’s is not precisely parallel, certainly.

Those Audis of yore have mechanical accelerators — the gas pedal connects to the engine by means of a linkage.

By contrast, starting with the 2007 model year every Toyota was equipped with a “drive-by-wire” throttle. When you press the gas pedal it doesn’t yank a wire that lets more fuel spray into the combustion chambers; instead, an electric signal tells the fuel injectors what to do.

What this means (and I’m greatly oversimplifying) is that there are external factors, among them various sorts of electronic interference, which in theory could foul up a drive-by-wire system but would have no effect on a mechanical accelerator.

What’s lacking is irrefutable proof that drive-by-wire is to blame for all, or even any, of Toyota’s woes.

Toyota contends it’s not a factor at all.

The matter is even more complicated because Toyota has acknowledged that there are mechanical problems, not electric ones, with the gas pedal assembly that was installed on many of the recalled models.

And the whole debacle was propagated by yet another matter: drivers reporting that their gas pedal got wedged behind the floor mat (a problem that can afflict pretty much any car made since the Model T, which had a hand-operated throttle).

Ultimately, I’m not satisfied with any explanation which demands that I believe Toyota rather suddenly stopped building vehicles to a standard of reliability and safety that was the envy of the industry, and started cobbling together badly designed deathtraps that make the Pinto look like the presidential limo.

The more plausible story is also more complex.

I think Toyota built millions of cars that have what is, statistically, a minor defect.

I think that in a very few cases that defect caused a driver to crash.

I think that in some of those same cases a different driver would have emerged unscathed.

And finally, I think it’s quite possible that all of these things could be said of every company that manufactures automobiles today.

It’s an awfully risky proposition, when you think about it — selling vehicles that can go 100 miles an hour and that anybody can legally drive who’s 16 years old and demonstrates the rudimentary level of skill that would in basketball relegate you to the third-string on J.V.

Nobody who engages in that business is immune to trouble.

Not even mighty Toyota.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.