Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Toyota Recalls

Unfortunately, the response by Toyota to the controversy involving unintended acceleration on some of their cars has been typical of all auto companies--try to minimize the controversy and cost, try not to admit out loud until it is obvious there is a problem that there is a problem, deny, delay and confabulate. Ford did it with the exploding Pintos and the bad tires on the Explorer. Chrysler did it with the latches on the rear door of minivans that would pop open in an accident. Those three examples come to mind quickly. You'd think they'd learn. They don't. So it's Toyota's turn in the regulatory woodshed.

I have a couple problems with the way things are going with this situation though. Number one is that Toyota is now being grilled and sifted by the U.S. Government, owners of Government Motors, aka Chrysler and General Motors. Maybe the left hand can avoid knowing what the right hand is doing, but I doubt it and it gives an appearance of bad doings. Secondly, instead of being in a mode where the safety regulators and the auto company can work together to find out everything about the problem, it sets up a stupid adversarial relationship between the two that discourages the free exchange of ideas. We are really not totally clear on how this problem is happening. Toyota has offered two "mechanical" explanations and fixes, but the fact is that we are not totally clear that the electronics are not contributing to the problem by being subject to interference. A professor at SIU was able to create unintended acceleration, and left no error codes behind (a lot of times if there is an electronic glitch, there be an error code, accessible either by a trick involving the ignition switch and the odometer, or by attaching a reader to the car's electronic brain). These type of electronic glitches are a beast to find and fix. I have a friend who is a Chrysler mechanic and he hates hearing these problems being brought to his garage for this precise reason. Also, is there an electronic glitch interplay between the throttle and the brake (talking about regular Toyotas, not Pruis) that is hindering drivers in stopping cars with unintended acceleration? So there are unanswered questions regarding the defect that need to be explored and answered honestly. Thirdly, I think we as drivers are not prepared for such emergent conditions. Have you ever asked yourself: What if my hood flew open while I was driving? What if my brake light went on and my brakes were failing? What if my car suddenly started accelerating? Our ignorance and inattention (Get off that damn cell phone for five freaking minutes!!!) makes any defect in our car seem even bigger and more dramatic, as we are ill equipped to take care of ourselves properly.

Finally, an example, from my own years of driving: It was a cold afternoon when I took my 1994 Plymouth Sundance out on the highway. After accelerating up the entrance ramp, I let up on the gas pedal/throttle, and the car was not acting right. *RPMs were up in 3000s, and the car was ready to go. I slipped the manual transmission into neutral, thus disconnecting the engine from the drive train, and applied the brakes. It sounded like what the car did when it was warming up--start at a real slow idle, and then go into a very fast idle. This fast idle could be killed by jabbing at the accelerator/throttle--it would drop into a proper idle rate. So quickly I took my right foot off the brake pedal, and jabbed the throttle--quick and hard--then returned to the brake pedal. The *RPMs dropped quickly into a more appropriate mode for a car in neutral. I shifted into gear (second would be my guess, but I honestly don't recall), and the car returned to acting normally. I then proceeded on my way. That happened once and never happened again during the seven plus years I had that car.

The basic ideas of dealing with this driving emergency: 1)drop your cell phone 2) step on the brake vigorously 3) shift car into neutral--even automatic transmissions can be shifted into neutral. 4)last resort: turn off the engine. Think about these things now--before the emergency.

*RPMs--revolutions per minute--the rate of the turn of the crankshaft of the engine. The higher the rpms, the faster the engine is turning. Not everyone is a car/transportation geek!

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