Washington Turns Up the Heat on Toyota
By Chris Haak
Perhaps it’s a case of kicking a company while it’s down, perhaps it’s a case of political grandstanding, or perhaps it’s a case of genuine concern for the safety of Toyota owners and their fellow motorists. Whatever the situation, Toyota’s rough week is getting worse. On top of the bad news from Washington, which I’ll get to momentarily, officials in Japan announced that they have asked Toyota to investigate the brakes in the current (third-generation) Prius after receiving more than 100 complaints about them. The issue is apparently tied to complaints about low-speed braking performance, and braking performance on rough surfaces.
Most likely, that issue is caused by the transition between regenerative braking and mechanical braking. Regenerative braking depends on wheel-speed sensors and does not generally handle the last few miles per hour of a stop; at that point, the traditional friction-based brakes kick in. Tightly integrating two very different braking systems into a single unified “feel” is one of the most difficult things that hybrid makers have to do, and while recent models are getting better at it, countless factors such as pad wear, moisture/humidity, temperature, etc. affect friction braking, and can cause the computer to “guess” incorrectly at how hard or soft to apply the regenerative feature so that it closely matches the friction brakes. Perhaps the issue could be resolved by a software fix.
Perhaps the larger bad news for Toyota, however, is the pressure it’s getting from both Congress and the Department of Transportation (DOT). Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a House committee today that owners of recalled vehicles, “My advice is if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, and take it to a Toyota dealer.” Not only are his words likely to cause a run on Toyota dealers everywhere, but dealers are only just receiving the repair parts, and have yet to receive repair procedures. Those are expected to arrive next week sometime.
Later in the day, LaHood pulled his foot out of his mouth and clarified that his statement only applied to owners who had experienced a sticking accelerator pedal, not to all of the millions of owners of recalled vehicles. His earlier comments drove Toyota’s stock price down about four percent immediately; the stock has since recovered some of those losses during intraday trading.
Mr. LaHood also said that his agency is “not finished” with Toyota, and that it is investigating whether the problem is more than a mechanical problem with the pedal mechanism, or with the floor mats, but rather a glitch in the vehicles’ electronic throttlte controls. Toyota has repeatedly stated publicly that it and several third parties have carefully looked into the electronics and have found nothing.
Toyota’s statements apparently did not sit well with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who sent a letter yesterday to Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz to ask about apparent inconsistencies between statements that Toyota officials made to the government privately about the issues less than a week before Lentz appeared on the Today Show and other news outlets to definitively state that the floor mat and accelerator mechanism issues solved all known problems with unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. For a PDF copy of the uncomfortable letter, click here.
Toyota is clearly in crisis mode right now; probably the biggest one in the company’s history. It has lost the faith of many of its customers, has regulators breathing down its neck, and has been publicly slapped around by Congress. The company clearly needs to get these issues behind it quickly, and come clean if there is any other potential skeleton in the unintended acceleration closet. Toyota’s executives have to be praying that things stop getting worse so that it can begin rebuilding its reputation, which is in tatters as far as many are concerned. Audi took about a decade to recover from its own unintended acceleration debacle, which was never as widespread as Toyota’s issue and never proven to be a mechanical defect. It remains to be seen if Toyota suffers a similar fate, but it’s clear that the company has to get its act together on this, and fast.
Frankly, I’m getting tired of beating this dead horse from a coverage standpoint, but with big news coming out on this topic nearly every day, it’s very hard to ignore it. Drive safely, folks!
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