Monday, February 08, 2010

I CAN Drive 55

Still a little quiet on the LP Cards front. I've had some different ideas bouncing around my head and just haven't taken or had the time to put them to blog. Two of the bigger ideas are Toyota's recalls and the fight between Obama and Congressional GOP members. I'm going to tackle Toyota today as I think it will be the quicker one and I'm avoiding some essential work to write it.

The first, and biggest problem, has been the sticking gas pedal recall. Millions of cars (I've seen numbers from 2.3 to 3.8 million) are being recalled for uncontrollable acceleration.

I'm going to digress here and tell you that there is no such thing as "uncontrollable acceleration." Now I'm not the first one to say this but many people I hear talk about this say, "just step on the break!" Ignoring for now the new revelation of break problems in some Toyotas, um in a word, no! Yes, you can step on the break and should but most car engines are able to out pull there breaks if the accelerator is also depressed. This is especially true if the car is already moving. I've even driven a few sportscars that can outpull their breaks at idle. So if you're driving and your car has a stuck break pedal there are several options.

First, stick your tow under the pedal and pull it up. If it is just a stuck pedal this will retard the gas flow. If this doesn't work you can down shift, even in an automatic. Do so in combination with stepping on the break. You are going to slow down rather quickly. The last option would be to put the car in neutral. Yes, this might blow the engine but that's infinitely better than a major wreck.

What you avoid doing at almost all costs is turning off the car! Doing so will kill all power assist and breaking and steering become exceedingly difficult. If you are driving an automatic, as an absolute last resort, you can slam it into park. This is going to hurt! This is also is guaranteed to destroy you transmission and probably do engine damage. This is something you do to avoid slamming into the brick wall or the sidewalk full of school kids.

The point is, there are things that can be done to stop the acceleration. It is not uncontrollable.


Back to the Toyota recall.

Some models are having their gas pedal resized and reshaped to avoid entrapment by a floor mat. Some people have questioned this but I can attest to personal experience in other cars that floor mats can and do interfere with pedal operation.

Other models, and there is some overlap, are being recalled so that the gas pedal linkage can be modified. Toyota has determined that too much friction can build up in the linkage and cause the pedal to stick in the depressed position. They will be inserting a metal spacer, a shim, to eliminate the friction issue.

For all Toyota released recall information, go here.

On top of all the accelerator problems it has now come out that there is a braking problem with some hybrid models. A recall hasn't been issued at this time but many think it is inevitable. This one seems like it might be more complicated. As I understand it the breaks fail for a brief moment (reported a second) when first depressed. A report on NPR this morning said this occurs when the hybrid models are using regenerative breaking to charge batteries. I'm not an engineer and you should take this comment with a big old block of salt but this seems to have the potential to be a problem with the over all technology. That said, it could have a simple fix. We'll have to wait and see.

To me the most interesting aspect is how this has all been handled. Toyota first encountered the accelerator problems since 2007. The first reported problems won't always signify a bigger problem. Still it appears to me that problems arose from hubris of the company (we build the best cars in the world) and just plain inexperience. Toyota HAS built some of the most reliable cars for a couple of decades now. I don't remember them ever having to deal with a major recall in the past. They just have not experience in handling the press involved in these situation. The American makers have had many big recalls and know how to deal with it.

Combine the inexperience with customer expectations - all those years of well built cars - and it's a volatile mix. Toyota, intentionally or not, seems to be ignoring their customer's safety. Even if the events are exceedingly rare people want to know what you are going to do about NOW. Toyota didn't have a plan and didn't address the concerns. This lead to the inevitable saturation of coverage in the media. To listen to the news you would think Toyotas are crashing and killing people on a daily basis. Again, the NPR story this morning said less than 20 people have been killed (16 IIRC). Compare that to the 36,000+ automobile related deaths each year in the U.S. and this problem gets in perspective.

Is there a winner in this debacle. Too early to tell really. If I had to speculate I would suggest watching Honda and Ford. Honda also carries the aura of quality. They also build many similar cars that directly compete with Toyota. It is an entire aura enjoyed by the major Japanese manufacturers. If, however, people's opinion of overall Japanese quality is fractured then we could see a move back to American makers. Ford has the best image in the U.S. at the moment because they didn't take government bailouts. A move away from Toyota and Japanese brands in general would certainly seem to favor FoMoCo. If people can move pass their bailout hatred they may also discover that Chevy is making some pretty decent cars at the moment.



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