The rhetoric yesterday in the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings was that everyone is on the side of safety and getting to the bottom of things. Well, what if there were, as I suspect, no bottom? What if Toyota, instead of stonewalling and hiding, really doesn’t know what causes the acceleration problem, even if they won’t admit that?
I heard most of the blather yesterday, with the company’s James Lentz saying it was not the computers, but they would continue to investigate, it was the floor mats, blah blah. Akio Toyoda today has repeated the same line, with profuse apologies, and this thing will take years to unravel, if it ever does. There will be lawsuits galore, more recalls, finger-pointing at NHTSA and others, and no definitive studies will emerge. The electronics will have won.
We all mostly welcome the fact that computers are taking over our cars. We have yet to accept the consequences of that fact. By going whole-hog electronic, auto companies have willingly introduced a whole new set of unknowns and variables—which they have yet to learn how to control.
There’s a wonderful line in a Carlos Fuentes novel I’m reading. Listening to the pulsing sound of a locomotive speeding through the night, the narrator calls its rhythm “simultaneously spirited and destructive like that of all machines.” The fact that so many of us live our lives around the automobile is to acknowledge daily how “spirited” it makes us feel and rarely to acknowledge how destructive a force it can be.
The automobile is still—and now with electronics, it’s even more so—a beast untamed, killing us apparently at random in large numbers. And also in small numbers, when it accelerates like a crazy horse that cannot be reigned in, out of control and moved by electronic whimsy. If you think Akio Toyoda and his crew of synchronized robots can figure out that mystery, you have more faith in the wonders of lean production than I do.
So the charade in Washington will continue because no one would dare suggest we really don’t understand all there is to know about electronic engine management. No one would dare to suggest, humbly, that there is still a great deal we don’t know about its operations… and its aberrations.
And so a great company has lost its credibility. While others have lost their lives.
How can the auto industry admit its flaws without opening itself up to more lawsuits? Give us your opinion on that one and win a job in Toyota’s Legal Department.