(Angus MacKenzie Writes For Motor Trend Magazine) I've just come from a three hour tech briefing at Toyota's Service Development Center in Torrance, California, where details of the three major recalls affecting Toyota vehicles - for floor mats, sticking accelerator pedals, and Prius brakes - were discussed, along with the claims that instances of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars may have been caused by electromagnetic interference of some kind.
After weeks of missteps and false starts, Toyota's communications team is finally starting to wrap its arms around the PR disaster that has engulfed the company over the past few months. With grandstanding politicians in Congress now joining NHTSA, dealers, customers, and - of course - a legion of trial lawyers sniffing fat fees, this mess is going to play out for a while yet. But Toyota insiders, clearly still shell-shocked at how rapidly events have spiraled out of their control, are trying to claw back the initiative.
Here are some highlights from this morning's session:
The floor mat issue is a delicate one because of the risk of offending customers
In addition to re-profiling and shortening the gas pedals in cars affected by the floor mat recall, Toyota has developed a new all-weather floor mat. The new rubber mat is thinner, lighter, and more flexible to reduce the risk of it trapping the accelerator pedal under its leading edge. But it's clear that some consumers are contributing to the problem - I was shown a photo sent in by a Toyota dealer of a vehicle fitted with a thick aftermarket floor mat designed for a completely different make and model of vehicle entirely covering the accelerator pedal. No-one would speak on the record about it, but Toyota's dilemma with the floor mat recall is obvious: It can't dare suggest that some of its customers might be doing the wrong thing.
Toyota knew it had a problem with sticking accelerator pedals in October 2009
"The defect trend [among cars equipped with throttle pedal assemblies made by supplier CTS Corporation] was noticed late October," admits spokesman John Hansen, who says the company started working on two potential solutions to the problem - the metal shims which could be inserted into the existing CTS components at dealerships, and a redesign of the pedal assembly before the end of the month. The redesigned pedals became available the week of January 25, and the decision to stop assembly of Toyotas fitted with CTS pedal assemblies was made, says Toyota Division chief Bob Carter, because it would give dealers immediate access to 25,000 of the redesigned pedals to speed up field repairs.
There have been 20 confirmed cases of sticking pedals in 2.4 million vehicles
There are up to 2.4 million Toyota vehicles with CTS pedal assemblies, but the company has only been able to confirm 20 actual cases of sticking pedals. The source of the problem is the plastic component that acts as a "friction shoe" in the accelerator pedal assembly. This friction shoe is designed to damp unwanted throttle inputs into the engine; it basically replicates the natural damping effect you get from an old-fashioned cable. On older, high mileage vehicles, moisture can get between the friction show and the pedal arm, effectively changing the co-efficient of friction between the two ("it's like getting water between two pieces of glass: the glass becomes sticky"). Because it's moisture dependent the problem is therefore intermittent and difficult to trace. The metal shim, which will be used to repair most recalled cars, changes the pivot point and alters the pressure between the friction shoe and the pedal arm. The redesigned pedal, which is being fitted to new cars, has a new friction shoe made from a slightly different plastic, and with a single groove instead of two.
Sales of non-recall affected Toyotas have been hurt by the controversy
"There still may be consumers out there who think they can't buy a Toyota," says Bob Carter. "That's not the case." Carter says the eight models it announced it would stop selling last month accounted for only 60 percent of the total dealer inventory at the time. "There were still 40 percent [of dealer inventory] that could be sold." Carter says that of the 112,000 units affected by the stop-sale order, 88,000 had been repaired as of four or five days ago. And since the company began shipping the metal shims to dealers nine days ago, more than 400,000 recalled cars had been fixed. A number of dealers are running three shifts in their service departments to cope with the demand; some have even installed a production line system, where one technician removes the pedal assembly, a second repairs it, and a third refits the repaired unit.
Electromagnetic interference is not causing unintended acceleration
"We have no evidence and no data that would show electromagnetic interference would have any impact on throttle action or unintended acceleration," says Kristen Tabar, an electronics engineer based at Toyota Technical Center USA in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Based on our extensive testing, Toyota's electronic throttle control system is not the cause of unintended acceleration." Toyota claims its closed loop feedback system and dual processor control makes a runaway engine impossible. If the system detects a problem - because of a voltage difference between the sensors, or an anomalous response to the "watchdog signals" shuttling between the two processors - it will default into one of four failsafe modes by closing the throttle or shutting off fuel and ignition.
Toyota has just announced that after initially handing off responsibility to his senior Japanese executive in North America, Yoshimi Inaba, company president and CEO Akio Toyoda will testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's hearings into the recalls next week. Toyota execs in Japan might be wondering why a problem that apparently first appeared on right hand drive Toyotas in 2008 (sticking accelerators) and has apparently been dealt with in Europe with minimal fuss, has exploded into such a nightmare here in the United States. They're learning the hard way that in America the customer is always right. Even when they might be wrong.
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