Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toyota Troubles

I had planned a post on health care legislation but this matter proves equally too big to ignore (for those who need an executive summary on my health care position: the less government interference, the better).

Yesterday we all saw the Congressional testimony of Rhonda Smith, whose Lexus apparently zoomed to over 100 MPH.    Definitely a terrifying experience, no doubt.    But I have a few questions about her testimony and the relevance of the entire proceedings.

In the interest of full disclosure:  My much-better-half drives a 2007 Toyota Highlander with 65,000 miles on it.  I drive a 2001 Toyota RAV-4, currently with 278K miles.   We also owned a 1990 Corolla which went as far as 320K miles before it was taken off the road 6 years ago.      To say I am fan of Toyota is obvious.

I get it; I get that there's a problem with drive-by-wire technology that can affect acceleration.   Fine.  It's not exactly new, and it needs to be addressed.

Another piece of full disclosure:  Back in December I was driving my third vehicle, a 1992 Chevy Blazer.  It's not a huge, honking model (for those keep score, it's an S10), but it's no lightweight either.   It, too, has high mileage, up around 176K.    To get pretty much anywhere around my neighborhood involves a drop of about 140' (giver or take) by way of anyone of a half-dozen roads.  I was climbing up one of those hills one night with my oldest.     This particular hill is about 4/5 of a mile long, from bottom to top.   Given the age and heft of the Blazer, I generally give it a fair amount of throttle to get up the hill.   Knowingly, I let off the gas pedal as I reach the top, and allow it to coast over the top of the hill.    

Having lived in the area for about 18 years, I know this road as well as any, and am aware there is a sharp turn less than a mile over the top of it.  My typical speed is about 40-45 MPH, and it wasn't until I capped the hill that I realized I was going over 50;  something definitely unusual.

I tapped the brakes and checked cruise control ... nothing happened.    I instinctively checked my mirrors and tapped the gas pedal 2x.... if anything, I was going even faster, with my speed heading over 65.

Now I wasn't going 100 MPH, let me be clear, but I do know of the sharp curve with the guard rail ahead.   I downshifted and cut ignition.  

To those who say WHOA!  You lost your power steering!   I say 'So what? It isn't as though I was about to parallel park!'   So long as I was moving, the wheels would steer with ease (and they did!).

To those who say WHOA!  You lost your power brakes!  I say 'No kidding?  but with the engine off, the transmission in low gear, I am not going to roll very far or fast!'  Had I left it in Drive the results would be the same, although being in a higher gear it would have been marginally harder to slow down.

I steered off the road and came to a halt.  My son and I looked at each other: this all happened inside of 5 seconds, and it was exhilarating.     I shifted to park and turned the ignition: the tachometer red lined, so I shut it off.   Under the hood I located the throttle assembly, rotated it into a low position and we were underway in less than 3 minutes, in low gear and going not much above an idle.     A can of GUMOUT spray the next day and all was well.    

So about Ms. Smith's testimony:

A few questions:
  • Are we to understand that nothing happened when Mrs. Smith operated the gear shift on the vehicle?  That's something that has never been reported, that Toyotas have shift-by-wire technology.  I cannot fathom how downshifting would not make a difference.  And I am stunned at the suggestion that shifting in neutral did nothing at all (although even that wasn't the best solution, it would have been better than accelerating out-of-control).   Certainly, a cursory exam of the transmission would reveal a lot.

  • This is a woman, whom based on her age, it can be assumed has driven for more than a few years.  I am not casting aspersions at her age, just making a point: she has likely driven for far more years than she's owned a Bluetooth phone, yet she was able to operate the latter without ever considering to shut off the ignition of the former!  I am not doubting she called her husband, but somehow I have a problem connecting these dots, under the circumstances she described.
  • Why?  Why was she paraded before Congress and the media?  Certainly, her testimony before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is appropriate, or even before US DOT.  But Congress?  Sorry, that's political showboating that takes advantage of a woman's undeniably harrowing experience.
  • If Toyota's aren't the only cars affected by the problems with drive-by-wire, why are they being showcased so badly?  Could it be the board of directors of General Motors (a/k/a US Congress) is looking to knock their chief rival down a few points?

Fact:  were I to purchase a new car, I would do what we've done in the past:  check Consumer Reports, and (odds are) buy a Toyota.  My confidence in the company has in no way been diminished by the recent problems, and I hope these issues are corrected soon.

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