Monday, March 15, 2010

Toyota fights back

Last month I wrote about the governors who were stepping up to defend Toyota from the Congressional and regulatory lynching it was receiving on Capitol Hill.  Well it appears that at least one of these runaway Toyota stories may be falling apart. From Fox News:
A federal safety investigation of the Toyota Prius that was involved in a dramatic incident on a California highway last week found a particular pattern of wear on the car's brakes that raises questions about the driver's version of the event, three people familiar with the investigation told the Wall Street Journal.

On Monday James Sikes, 61 years old, called 911 and told the operator his blue 2008 Toyota Prius had sped up to more than 90 miles per hour on its own on Interstate 8 near San Diego. He eventually brought the vehicle to a stop after a California Highway patrolman pulled alongside Sikes and offered help.

During and after the incident, Sikes said he was using heavy pressure on his brake pedal at high speeds.

But the investigation of the vehicle, carried out jointly by safety officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota engineers, didn't find signs the brakes had been applied at full force at high speeds over a sustained period of time, the three people familiar with the investigation said.
Walter Olson has a very interesting historical perspective of the Toyota feeding frenzy at National Review.  He compares the current hysteria over Toyota with a similar episode in 1986:
By far the most famous episode of sudden-acceleration panic is the 1986 Audi episode, which took years to fizzle out: Regulators in the United States, Japan, and Canada pronounced that they could find no explanation for the accidents other than “pedal misapplication” or, more bluntly, driver error. The parallels with the Toyota affair — starting, but not ending, with the tendency of acceleration incidents to hit older drivers — are numerous and continue to multiply.

With Audi, as with Toyota, the anecdotes seemed compelling. Attractive families, who spoke well and obviously believed in their cause, had lost loved ones to horrendous accidents. No one, least of all the miserable execs from the automaker, wanted to go on camera to contradict them, even though (as it turned out) their cases often failed to convince juries when things eventually got to court.

With Audi, as with Toyota, massive publicity fed on itself. As the scare went national, the number of reported acceleration incidents soared, partly because newly wary customers began reporting incidents they might otherwise not have bothered to report, partly because families (and lawyers) seized on the acceleration theory to explain older crashes. In both cases, newly filed reports on older accidents ensured that the overall numbers would leap almost overnight in a newsworthy way, thus keeping the cycle going.

With Audi, as with Toyota, the panic was met with far more skepticism in the specialized enthusiast and engineering press — places like Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, and their online equivalents — than in the general press and on Capitol Hill. Not that seasoned automotive writers necessarily were in a rush to dismiss the reports; there’s always a first time with emerging hazards, and problems like misplaced floor mats or sticky pedals might indeed need to be checked out. But the general feeling was that familiar old causes of accidents should be well explored before positing exotic new ones.
Mr. Olson has written a thoughtful, well-researched, though somewhat lengthy article.  If you have the time, read the whole thing.  And if you are in the market for great value automobile, consider buying a Toyota.

The Daily CallerThe Wall Street Journal, ABC News and  the Los Angeles Times have more.

In many ways, it goes against the traditions of Japanese culture to play media hardball.  But in some cases, the best offense is a good offense.

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