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BACK SEAT DRIVING: OH, WHAT A FEELING!

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Tue, Feb 16, 2010

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

Back Seat Driving (Feb 2010) Oh, What A Feeling!

BACK SEAT DRIVING OH, WHAT A FEELING! Unintended Acceleration, 'Buy American', Electronic Glitches: The problems may go well beyond Toyota and Toyota's recalls

Building Siennas at Toyota's Indiana manufacturing facility These past few weeks have been a rough ride for Toyota. The car company with the most sterling reputation for reliability has been faced with a series of unfortunate events. For a company that relies so heavily on this reputation, it's a hard rain falling. The first one was big: unintended acceleration. It may have only been a handful out of Toyota's millions of drivers, but they did meet a tragic, fatal end. Toyota initially pointed to incorrect floor mats being installed - particularly certain all-weather mats that potentially interfered with the accelerator pedal. Toyota announced a recall involving approximately 5.2 million vehicles to address a potential pedal entrapment/floor mat problem. The recall involved altering the pedal, installing correct floor mats, and incorporating a brake override system that will automatically cut off the accelerator if both the brakes and accelerator are depressed. But the problems were not over for Toyota. Subsequent to the initial recall, one owner brought in a vehicle to a dealer with the accelerator stuck and without any floor mat to interfere with the pedal. Toyota zeroed in on an accelerator part that could corrode and interfere with the pedal release function. Toyota responded with stopping production of the impacted vehicles and widening its recall to a total of 9 million vehicles worldwide. Some critics think Toyota responded too slowly to the acceleration concerns when the issue first arose. Car companies tend to be a little skeptical about these things, particularly in view of the unintended acceleration public relations fiasco that hit Audi big time a few decades back. Most experts today view that old Audi problem as one of driver error and an accelerator pedal that looked too much like a brake pedal - both exacerbated by a CBS 60 Minutes report that was more art than science. Toyota's problems were compounded when the iconic 2010 Prius was reported to have braking problems over potholes and loose gravel. The problem was pinpointed to the programming of the vehicle's anti-lock braking system. A simple re-programming would take care of the problem, but it meant recalling all 2010 Toyota Priuses and Lexus HS 250h sedans produced through January of 2010 and putting another dent into Toyota's mighty reliability reputation armor. In truth, vehicle recalls happen all the time, but any recalls currently coming from Toyota are under a magnifying glass. And so the subsequent recalls of a small number of certain Toyota Camrys for potential brake fluid leaks and Tacomas for front drive shaft issues earlier this month have certainly not gone unnoticed. If all the attention on the recalls weren't bad enough for Toyota, the car company was dealt a further blow when California State Assemblyman Ted Lieu announced that he would reintroduce a "buy American" policy for all pool vehicles used by the Assembly's 80 members. "With the massive safety problems that Toyota is experiencing, I think it's an appropriate time to go back to the 'buy American' policy," he said. A few of my colleagues in the automotive press were slack-jawed by Assemblyman Lieu's measure. First of all, the primary target of Toyota's recall involves the Camry, which is built in Kentucky. And the Sienna, Toyota's most carpool-capable people mover, is built in Indiana. Notwithstanding the local content and labor involved in Toyota's recalled vehicles, "how is safety and American-made related to each other?," asked one of our LA Car editors-at-large. "I can see it now: Honey, let's forget about buying the Mercedes or Volvo, and go for the 'American' car - it's safer." Curiously, Assemblyman Lieu's district includes Torrance, which is the national headquarters for Toyota, and where thousands of local residents are employed. Ted Lieu, however, is running for Attorney General. And Lieu's response to "buy American" may resonate with certain voters facing severe economic hardships. Back in the 1980s, unemployed Detroit autoworkers took their frustrations out by bashing Toyotas with sledgehammers. The most unfortunate victim of the anti-Japanese car sentiment back then was Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit just five days before his wedding because his assailants failed to make the distinction between the makers of Japanese cars and Chinese Americans. Toyota's problems are far from over. Not everyone's convinced that the unintended acceleration issues are confined to a mechanical part or to a floor mat. The press ponders over the much-celebrated proximity key system that Toyota pioneered, which allows Smart Key-equipped Toyotas and Lexuses to automatically open doors and start the engine without the need for taking your key out of your pocket or purse. Also under the glass: Toyota's electronic accelerator controls. But proximity key systems and electronic acceleration systems are now offered by virtually all the major car manufacturers, and all must be wondering about the potential for electronic ghosts haunting their vehicles at some unknown point in the future. As LA Car Contributing Editor Doug Stokes states, "I was sincerely hoping that the major car companies would close ranks and offer to share everything they had on the subject with Toyota - for the good of the industry. No company is immune to this sort of thing. This would have been a place for the whole industry to look really responsible, trustworthy and statesmanlike. Instead they're piling it on and offering special deals to Toyota customers. I wonder how long it will be before the first Chevy dealer parks a wrecked, bent-up Toyota on its roof out front?"  - Roy Nakano  

LA Car

That was LA Car's subtitle when it started back in 1997. Its original website address was about five times the size of lacar.com. Since then, La Car became LA Car. Its subtitle became Reporting From Car Culture Ground Zero, then From The Heart of Car Culture, to The Cars and Culture of Southern California and back. At all times, however, we aimed to chronicle the Southland's automotive spirit - much like one's own journal or diary. LA Car has always been a great source to come back to from week-to-week, to see what articles and reviews have been added to our rather staggering database. With Back Seat Driving, a.k.a. BSD (not to be confused with two similar, well-worn abbreviations, BS and BFD) and Breaking News (co-located with Back Seat Driving, and updated several times daily), we give you some reasons to come back more often (all opinions, by the way, are those of the respective author). So, go ahead and bookmark www.lacar.com. We'll be sure to provide a link to Breaking News and the latest Back Seat Driving blog entry. In the meantime, welcome to the journal and journey from the heart of the car culture. - Roy Nakano  For the story behind LA Car's shift knob avatar, go to Kool Knobs for LA Car For past Back Seat Driving and LA Car Blog entries, click the Archives.

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