The automotive industry has furnished the field of engineering ethics with more than one “paradigm” case that generations of budding engineers have studied. In the way Toyota tried to deal with the now-infamous problem of unintended acceleration in many of its models, they have given us an example of how not to deal with a safety problem. Technical issues are only one aspect of the way an initially small-scale issue snowballed into a major financial disaster that shut down sales and may have permanently blotted Toyota’s reputation. While the whole story has yet to emerge, it looks now as though a circle-the-wagons mentality was at least as much to blame as poor engineering.
A circle-the-wagons mentality was at least as much to blame as poor engineering.
We have the Los Angeles Times to thank for most of the initial journalistic spadework that pressured Toyota into reluctant action. Back in August of 2009, an off-duty policeman and three of his family suddenly felt their new Lexus race out of control at speeds of up to 100 mph before it hit another car, flew down an embankment, and caught fire, killing all four occupants. Investigation revealed that if a certain rubber floor mat is installed, a projection in the molding can catch the bottom tip of the rigid accelerator pedal so that the throttle is stuck wide-open. In late September, Toyota issued a floor-mat recall on over four million vehicles.
The August incident turned out to be the tip of an unintended-acceleration iceberg that Toyota has been struggling to minimize for over a decade, as further investigations published by the L. A. Times in October revealed. In October 2009, Toyota sent out a letter to many of its car owners that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criticized four days later as “inaccurate” and “misleading.” Toyota was clearly trying to minimize a problem that now appears to be more serious than simply a floor mat that interferes with accelerator-pedal motion. Some of the incidents dug up by the Times appear to involve the “drive-by-wire” electronic accelerator system, which is of course operated by computer programs. Toyota admits that there is no software feature that disables the accelerator pedal when the brake pedal is pressed.
In 2010, Toyota had exactly one machine in the U. S. that could read a car’s onboard data recorder to assist in diagnosing accidents and problems after the fact. This appeared to be an attempt on the part of the automaker to control the production of potentially damaging information, since dealers and other interested parties could not access the data without special equipment. After a four-fatality crash the day after Christmas 2009 in Texas appeared to be due to unintended acceleration, things spun out of even Toyota’s control. On January 26, 2010, they took the extraordinary step of halting sales of about half their models until the mechanical accelerator fix could be applied. It turns out that this was at the request of the federal government, in a move that was probably motivated by words to the effect of, “if you don’t do it by yourselves, we’ll make you do it.” In the years following the massive recalls, no hardware or software smoking gun was ever discovered, but numerous mechanical problems with drive-by-wire accelerator mechanisms getting jammed by floor mats were found, and Toyota dealt with these issues as well as it could. Evidence emerged that other auto makes were at least as likely as Toyota’s to have unintended acceleration problems, and there is a consensus that at least some of the incidents were due to driver error — pushing the accelerator instead of the brake pedal — augmented by panic, which tends to cloud one’s memory of exactly where one’s foot was at the time.
The phrase “damage control” has taken on a darker meaning in recent years.
The phrase “damage control” can mean several things. If you’re talking about something as straightforward as fighting a fire, it means putting the fire out as fast as you can to minimize physical damage. But the phrase has taken on a darker meaning in recent years. It has come to mean a strategy that an organization deploys in its public (and government) relations in order to convince outsiders that whatever really happened, things are not that bad after all. It is pretty clear that in the initial stages of the unintended-acceleration scandal, Toyota had taken the second meaning all too much to heart. In its misleading minimizing of the seriousness of recalls, in its failure to provide more than one data-reading device for the entire U. S., and in its Johnny-come-lately reactions to serious, long-term problems, it showed a signal lack of judgment and concern for the safety of the driving public. It took a courageous news outlet to keep hammering on the issues and asking embarrassing questions, as well as a government agency that is arguably understaffed and underequipped to deal with the technical complexity of today’s automotive industry.
The worst thing that can happen to a corporation (short of going out of business altogether) is to lose money, and Toyota has already been taken to the woodshed in that regard. The automaker embarked on a redesign of the affected vehicles in which a simultaneous application of the brake and the accelerator leads to “brake to idle,” which other companies had previously adopted. But perhaps the strongest lesson Toyota learned from the controversy is that customer anxieties and fears are just as real as defective mechanical parts. Ignoring or minimizing such concerns can allow a controversy to snowball until the damage done is all out of proportion to the actual documentable problems.
This article is a revised version of a blog posted at engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com on Mar. 6, 2010. It has been updated to reflect current knowledge of the controversy.
Karl D. Stephan is Professor at the Ingram School of Engineering, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.