Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Finding fault with a fault

A few weeks ago I received a notice from Toyota that there might be a floor mat interference with the accelerator pedal in my car. The notice went on to say that they, Toyota, were developing a remedy campaign and that I would be notified when it was ready. I checked my floor mats out and couldn't see any way they could interfere so I ignored the notice.

Not too long afterwards the media floodgates opened. Accelerator sticking and possibly computer problems on certain models made by Toyota became the lead news item on local and network TV. Blogs and Websites were cluttered with critics belaboring Toyota, and almost every day came new revelations from the U.S government and industry specialists. Now accidents with fatalities were being uncovered, causing me to rethink my lack of concern.

After some unintentional stonewalling, while Toyota experts attempted to define and understand the depths of the problem, headquarters in Japan advised that a fix would be available, to be installed by the dealers. Before that fix was described, another possible cause was identified and another round of tests, followed by the announcement of another fix.

The largest automotive recall in history was announced and media advertisements apologizing for the problem were distributed. The latest culprit, a sticking accelerator pedal, could be fixed by the insertion of a metal plate, which miraculously was available at all U.S. dealers.

Curious as to why I hadn't received a formal recall notice for the floor mat or the accelerator pedal fixes, I called Toyota and was informed that, indeed, my car was one of those possibly affected and that I could simply call my dealer for an appointment for corrective action.

So Monday was the day, and I checked in at my dealer where I joined a significant number of others who waited for about an hour for two fixes, a floor mat modification and the accelerator plate retrofit. The service department at my dealer is top rated and they have always been a pleasure to visit. Even in the face of extended service department hours to accommodate the affected vehicle owners, the service staff managed to look unflustered and in-control. Of course, our complaint was not with the dealer it was with Toyota, but just like the poor airline ticket clerk who gets involved with travelers in a sometimes vehement confrontation, the service people are the front line for owner complaints.

I think that had we been driving any other make of automobile we might not have been so concerened with the maker's response; but this was Toyota, the paragon of quality and reliability, the brand that we willingly pay more for because of these two factors. I've been driving these for almost 35 years and in that time Toyota has consistently delivered the right products for my needs.

But now I, like others, am concerned. The revelations about more problems makes the company look bad, warranted or not. My associate, who has her recall fix scheduled for today, has heard the news that her model may also have a steering problem. And she drives the latest of Toyota's most reliable models. Her son is training for his license and she has concerns that he is practicing in a potentially unsafe vehicle. She is looking to Toyota for reassurance and so far they have let her down.

In my technology world, quality, reliability, and safety are hard-earned attributes that product makers strive for. Even I, just a reporter of products, always wince when I see a rare Web reference to a fire involving a laser, usually traced to either an electric fault or a buildup of byproduct materials in the exhaust system. It's almost as if these infrequent occurrences are an affront to my sensibilities.

Years ago, when I was in the electron beam business, we learned that a faulty electron beam weldment had been identified as the cause of jet fighter canopy deployment leading to a fatality. Even though the maker of the electron beam welder used by the jobshop responsible for the weld failure was our bitterest rival we were all pulling for them to be cleared of fault so that our products would not be looked upon with disfavor. Frankly, we were pleased that the tumult over the finding of the problem quickly disappeared from the media and, to my knowledge, no long-term effects were felt within the industry.

I don't have any idea how Toyota will come out of this. Every day brings more bad news and the company seems handcuffed when it comes to clearing the air. I am not acting as an apologist for Toyota or the auto industry, but it never ceases to amaze me that a package made of thousands of parts, from hundreds of vendors, operated by skilled and unskilled drivers under the most onerous of conditions manages to perform to specification.

Sunday I was watching the end of the Daytona 500 as one of the announcers made a comment that a driver was trying for the win with an engine turning 8000 rpm on his tachometer. I thought, 8000 revolutions per minute for minute on minute, what a test for that engine and, since it made it through the race, what a tribute to the engine makers who assembled such a beautifully performing product. So I guess a once–in-awhile glitch precipitating a recall is forgivable.

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