The problem isn’t just with Toyota

Too much tourque? Figuring out how serious the acceleration issue is was hampered by opportunism and sensationalist journalism.

The problem isn’t just with Toyota

Photograph by Sandy Huffaker/ Bloomberg/ Getty

When it comes to Toyota’s problems with sudden unintended acceleration, it is starting to look like 1986 all over again. It was in November of that year that the CBS show 60 Minutes aired its infamous report on a similar problem in Audi vehicles, featuring footage of the accelerator on an Audi 5000 moving toward the floor as if by magic. It wasn’t magic, though: CBS had engineered that touch of automotive Ouija-boardery through a can of compressed air and a hose drilled into the transmission.

Eventually it was determined that unintended acceleration was caused by “pedal misapplication,” a.k.a. drivers pressing the gas when they meant to push the brake. But not before the Audi brand was so thoroughly trashed that sales didn’t recover for a full decade and a half.

There is no question something is wrong with Toyota’s cars—the company has admitted as much, though it claims the problem is not electronic but mechanical, caused by ill-fitting floor mats in some models and sticky pedals in others. But figuring out how serious the problem of sudden unintended acceleration is, and how widespread it might be, has been hampered by the workings of the unholy trinity of consumer affairs scandals: sensationalist journalism, rank opportunism, and good old-fashioned human-powered idiocy.

Apparently working off some old 60 Minutes scripts he found in the garbage, Brian Ross of ABC news went for a test ride last month in a Toyota whose electronics had been—get this—deliberately modified to create sudden acceleration. Footage of the ride shows the car doing as expected, i.e., leaping ahead without warning. But Ross’s editors clearly didn’t think it was sufficient to send American Toyota owners into a panic, so they spliced into the scene a close-up shot of the car’s tachometer suddenly spiking to 6,000 rpm. Except the shot was obviously faked, since the dashboard indicators in the scene show that the car doors are open and the transmission is in park.

For sheer out-of-control terror though, it’s hard to beat the wild ride James Sikes’s Prius took him on last week. Sikes made headlines around the world with his story of hanging on for dear life as his car raced along a San Diego highway for 30 minutes, hitting speeds as high as 90 miles an hour. Despite (he claims) standing on the brakes, and at one point even trying to pry the accelerator off the floor with his hand, Sikes was only able to stop after a highway patrol officer talked him through an “emergency braking procedure.”

The story is almost certainly a hoax. It’s simply not possible, mechanically or electronically, for a Prius to keep accelerating when both the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time. Toyota has politely said it’s “mystified” by what happened, while U.S. federal investigators spent two days last week trying to replicate the acceleration, concluding (according to a leaked internal memo) that Sikes’s terror ride is “not feasible.” Various media outlets have reported that Sikes and his wife filed for bankruptcy protection a couple of years ago, but the couple says they have no desire to sue Toyota.

It isn’t clear yet what is really going on here. Perhaps it is the return of “driver error,” the same problem that haunted Audi in the 1980s. Back then, reports of sudden acceleration were highly correlated with being old, being short, or trying to park. The Los Angeles Times recently crunched the numbers on all National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports of Toyota “sudden acceleration” fatalities, and found that the overwhelming majority of drivers involved were over 55. Additionally, a sizable number of the cases happened when the driver was parking, in rush hour traffic, or accelerating from a light or stop sign.

Maybe, though, the problem is less about elderly, confused or distracted drivers than it is a sign of our own increasing alienation from the basic responsibility that goes along with getting behind the wheel of a car.

Once upon a time, safe driving was a skill. You needed a feel for the road and for the way the car’s suspension and handling was responding to changing conditions. You had to listen to the engine and the exhaust and be able to identify potential problems. And ultimately, you needed a modest amount of technical know-how about how the car actually worked, so that you could either make minor repairs on your own, or at least know enough to take it to someone who could.

Over the past few decades, cars have become more and more like very sophisticated appliances whose operation is beyond our comprehension. As a result, we’ve become passive and reactive drivers, insulated by technology from any sense of control or of responsibility for our own well-being. As that responsibility has shifted from the driver to the manufacturer, there has been a growing pressure to make cars not only safe and reliable, but completely idiot-proof.

As exhibit A, consider again Sikes’s case. He could have easily tamed his runway Prius by simply putting the thing in neutral, but he told police that he was afraid to do so because he thought the car might flip. But he’s not alone in being completely disconnected from the machine he was supposed to be controlling. As a writer for the automotive website Jalopnik pointed out in a recent article, Toyota actually had to release a guide for drivers, explaining how to remove a floor mat that had got stuck under the accelerator.

It isn’t our cars that are accelerating away from us, but our technology. In our increasing fear and befuddlement, we are manifestly failing to keep up.


The problem isn’t just with Toyota

  1. I drive a 1986 Toyota that runs like a charm, and I won’t be buying a new car until they stop putting in computers to control things that the driver should be in control of.

  2. great writing, I hope this is published in the magazine

  3. IN other words the problem is between the foot and the pedal. AKA input error.

  4. Over 55= elderly?????
    Does MacLeans not know that the 50 year age group is the group of people with the least accidents!!!!!

    • but with the most punctuation marks

  5. "But figuring out how serious the problem of sudden unintended acceleration is, and how widespread it might be, has been hampered by the workings of the unholy trinity of consumer affairs scandals: sensationalist journalism, rank opportunism, and good old-fashioned human-powered idiocy."

    Without taking away from Toyota's culpability, I think we need to more precisely identify the role of the US government in demonizing Toyota throughout this process.

    • This is edging on conspiracy theory, but do you think that since the US Government has a controlling share of GM, it's having a shorter fuse with Toyota which is the only company that managed to dethrone GM as the top auto manufacturer?

      • I think the protectionist wagons tend to circle at the best of times in the US, and all the moreso during a recession. Hard to say if their stake in GM and Chrysler motivated some of the more absurd grandstanding by various agencies and figures, but it can't have helped.

      • Not a doubt in my mind. What other auto exec's have been called to Congress because of a vehicle recall? GM recently had a widespread recall also, but you didn't hear squat from the gov't or the media about it.

      • Amen to you brother!!!

  6. I think the real problem is that Toyota has been hiding this problem for a lot of years, and only did the recall becasue they were forced to.

    Toyota quality has been slipping for years and it looks like they want to keep their past reputation of quality by hiding major defects.

    • "Toyota quality has been slipping for years"

      No it hasn't. Toyota's image of reliability has been forged by simplicity of design and low manufacturing tolerances, resulting in vehicles that have a very low failure rate. While all manufacturers has been adding more and more electrogadgets who are more prone to premature failures, Toyota's failure rate still was significantly lower than any other manufacturer. The perception of slippage in quality comes from the misconception that these electrogadgets are supposed to be more reliable than the simple machinery of old.

  7. This reads suspiciously like a summery of a number of articles on jalopnik, and I'm sure the same stuff was covered on a number of other sites as well.

    Still, it is definitely worth repeating.

  8. "Too much tourque? Figuring out how serious the acceleration issue is was hampered by opportunism and sensationalist journalism."

    I think it's "torque".

    "As that responsibility has shifted from the driver to the manufacturer, there has been a growing pressure to make cars not only safe and reliable, but completely idiot-proof."

    I don't see a way around this – it's driven (sorry) by market forces. Operating a car was once left to the mechanically inclined. With modern social pressures for everyone to be as independent as everyone else, the shifting demographic of those who drive has forced car-makers to move these aspects of the art of driving from the driver's seat to the car's CPU. They can't go back now without alienating half the drivers on the road.

    • "the shifting demographic of those who drive has forced car-makers"

      Do you mean to say that car makers had in no way intended to make their cars more accessible to a large demographic to increase sales? Nobody forced the car makers to do anything, but if you want to sell a car to an idiot you have to make your car idiot proof.

      "They can't go back now without alienating half the drivers on the road."

      I wouldn't be so sure about that. In Finland the physical and knowledge requirements to obtain and keep a driver's lisence are a lot more stringent than in North America. Training is mandatory for all drivers and that includes slippery conditions and night-time driving. It's not say that their drivers are idiot proof but they are certainly better off than North American drivers even in vehicles without the modern safety luxuries.


  9. "…It's simply not possible, mechanically or electronically, for a Prius to keep accelerating when both the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time…."

    Then how do you explain the worn out brakes and the smell of burning brake pads?

    • Constant back and forth between the brake and the gas to keep his supposed spped up. Look it up, it had 250 applications of the brake and gas stored in the computor. If you wanted to stop the vehicle why would you not just stay on the brakes.

  10. Toyota has been covering this up for years. The fact that the journalists are jimping on board is because Toyota failed to take this problem seriously for years and instead of it being a production quality issue is now a full fledged coverup.

  11. The author, in a contrarian attempt to come up with a fresh story angle, misses the whole point, including the risk and danger created by Toyota's obfuscatory efforts, their use of insider relationships with U.S. Gov't regulatory agencies, and their absolute uncaring attitude towards the safety of their customers. Toyotagate, like Watergate, is about the cover-up, but it's also about the crime. To harpoon Brian Ross for illustrating the problem with what was obviously a standing-still tach reading misses the whole point. These acceleration issues are many in number and most recently they seem to be clustered nearby major electrical installation which may be messing with the electronics. This isn't a harmless debate. Toyotas are in front, behind and us daily. Knowing that failures of the acceleration, brakes and steering have been routinely covered up is literally criminal.

  12. I am sure there are all kind of "real" issues behind the Toyota story. A coverup of real problems, insider relationships. Sure. Welcome to our world. But for me, this is all just a little too much like the tendency to blame others – and our modern society has gone around the bend on this – no longer are we supposedly responsible for anything. It's truly sickening. Somewhere, somehow this runaway train of not recognizing that there are no absolutes in this world. NONE. Except for being alive and living, and being dead. Between there is a whole host of opportunity to "live" life. Let's stop looking for others to blame and take that on to the fullest order.

  13. Having worked on vehicles all my life, the issue at heart here is a electronic one. Unlike vehicles of old, that used a cable from your pedal to your throttle, Toyota and other vehicles now use a drive by wire device. What this means is there is no direct connection between your pedal and the throttle on the engine. Fun and joy when your onboard computer decides to override your input signal.
    Throwing the vehicle into neutral would help, BUT your breaking system does not function with as much power due to a failure to gain vacuum in the vacuum booster. Imagine your engine going full throttle and your breaks working at less then 100%. The question here is how do you stop a vehicle from going forward when there's a throttle jam? The best option is to do everything possible, but not all drivers are capable of knowing what to do when your vehicle will not stop. Drivers education is the place to start, after they fix the mechanical issues.
    Further, lets not place the blame on age groups. Take any driver from any age group and throw them in a vehicle that does not respond to their input, and problems will occur. Just watch Canada's Worst Drive on Discovery, you'll see age does not factor in all the time.

  14. As soon as sensational, over the top fear mongering journalists have squeezed every last drop out of this story it will be relegated to the dust bin of history, along with Y2K, Swine Flu and hopefully global warming or Climate Change or whatever else they are calling it these days. I cam across an ancient National Geographic in my Doctors office from the 80's. Front page story on how this new thing El Nino was gonna kill us all. Yawn.

    • Preach it wayne…you have your finger on the pulse of this story!!!

  15. Both me and my better half drive Toyotas , both with over 240,000kms. Neither has cost either so much as a dime in all that driving over and above normal maintenance. We both can easily understand why Toyota sales were again up in March. Only a fool wastes my money on auto repairs.
    Pay a little extra on purchase , or pay a whole h+ll of a lot more in repairs for years.
    Decide for yourself. Make a mental note of which brands are being towed. Think about it , when was the last time you saw a Toyota , or for that matter an asian brand on a tow truck.

  16. Couldn't agree more. Yes, there are problems with Toyota. Recently I just had a big problem and that repair was expensive. I had to replace a Toyota carburetor rebuild kit with my dealer. But also other make cars also experience problems with their production. Like Honda and Ford. The only difference is its performance and how comfortable it is to drive your car. Well for me, I am still loving my Toyota Camry.

  17. All kind of cars will have their own problems. It's either in performance, handling, comfortably and etc. Even luxury cars will encounter problems. All I'm trying to say is that it's normal for cars to have daily maintenance. BTW, I am driving a Toyota Vios.

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