Dr. Shukri Souri of Exponent: Explaining the Toyota pedal issues on Monday. (Toyota photo)
From a public relations point of view, this one is for the record books. Just after Toyota staged a lavish webcast to try and put sudden acceleration behind it, a Prius ran wild to 90 mph on a California highway, resulting in sensational coverage on every website, TV station and newspaper in America.
But the real story was a bit more subtle: The 2008 Prius driven by hapless motorist James Sikes had not been "fixed" by Toyota (he claims he was turned away from his dealership) but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "defects and recalls" database has recorded more than 60 sudden acceleration incidents in cars that were fixed. Here's a few, just involving 2010 Camrys:
"I own a 2010 Camry. I just had the recall done last week. Since the work has been done, I have had nothing but problems with the idle and the engine. Before the recall was done, I never had a problem. Something needs to be done before more people are killed."
"My vehicle has been recalled and 'repaired'--gas pedal, floor mat, brake override system. Prior to the recall, the gas pedal was sluggish and I would experience mini, sudden accelerations. There has been no improvement since the repairs (done March 2). In fact, it appears to have become more frequent. The sudden accelerations are not dramatic and braking does take care of the problem."
"While parking my 2010 Camry at the grocery store, I slowly turned into the parking space and my car suddenly accelerated, jumping the curb and hitting a cement surrounded light pole....I was not noticeably injured. The car had just had the replacement pedal installed on March 2, 2010 as ordered by the recall."
And here are a few involving the 2010 Prius, which has a separate acceleration problem connected with braking over broken pavement:
"Since I purchased the car in September of 2009, the brakes fail when I am braking and hit a bump, pothole or uneven road surface. The brakes fail for a second or two, and sometimes the cr lurches forward...On March 6, 2010 I had the recall software for the 2010 Prius done in the service department at the Mike Calvert Toyota dealership in Houston, Texas. On the way home, I experienced the brake failure again when I was braking and drove over a small pothole."
"I visited my local dealership for repair of the brake recall of the 2010 Prius in early February. I do not believe that this repair has fixed the problem. A few days after the fix, my car seemed to accelerate as I was braking and happened to be going over a pothole."
I'm aware there is such a thing as the power of suggestion, and the fact that runaway Toyotas are blanketing the news may make some people see problems where they don't necessarily exist. After Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast in the 1930s, many people reported seeing his Martians or Venusians or whatever they were.
John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman, said to me, "It makes no difference if the car has been repaired or not: If there has been an incident reported, we have to investigate and see what caused it. Out of more than a million cars repaired in the recall, there have been a very small number of complaints, which we are investigating. The number is not necessarily significant."
Hanson told me, as did another spokesman, Mike Michels, during the Toyota webcast yesterday, "We have a couple of cases of errors being made in the installation of the remedy. It's a handful of cases."
Toyota, with its recalls, apologies and reassuring commercials, keeps trying to put sudden acceleration behind it, but the genie refuses to stay in the bottle. The Christian Science Monitor got to the heart of the issue when it said, "[I]n playing defense, Toyota is not addressing owners' and buyers' core concern: Is my car safe?"
ABC-TV investigative reporter Brian Ross, whose reporting sparked the Toyota webcast, told me via email today, "I'm on vacation this week but it seems there are still many open [questions] about Toyota and its insistence of no electrical or computer problems."
David Gilbert, the Southern Illinois University professor who ignited the most recent round of bad publicity by testifying before Congress that he had found an electronic glitch in Toyota's pedal systems, informed me via email that he will meet next week with Toyota's hired consulting company, Exponent. "I am committed to working with industry, government and other interested[ed] parties and hope to provide more conclusive opinions and input as more research and analysis is completed," he said.
Here's Bloomberg News in a video report on the latest events:
But Gilbert's work--the subject of Toyota's webcast--is something of a diversion at this point. Toyota demonstrated fairly definitively that a wiring fault similar to the one he used to make cars run away is very unlikely to occur in the real world. But Gilbert was trying to prove something else entirely. As Eric Evarts noted on the Consumer Reports blog, "In his Congressional testimony, Gilbert says this shows Toyota's system is not infallible. His primary conclusion is that his test should have triggered an error code. In his report, he does not claim his procedure explains how unintended acceleration occurs in the real world."
The real question now: Is there a "ghost in the machine"--a software problem--that is causing this intractable problem? "There isn't a ghost issue out there," Toyota's Kristen Tabar said during the webcast yesterday, and the company continues to express confidence in its electronic systems.
Hanson also says there's no electronic gremlin, or at least Toyota hasn't found one. "We have investigated this many times, and it is also gone over in the R&D process," he said. "We have yet to find any evidence of a software issue, or the ghost in the machine' that people are trying to find. If there was one, it would have occurred many, many times. Our computers compare notes with each other in milliseconds, and there are layers of fail-safe that would make it pretty darn tough for anything like that to happen." But Hanson also said that engineers "never say never," and that both Toyota and Exponent are continuing their probes.
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