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Mario's Rant: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war - Toyota's image is taking a beating

Published:Saturday | February 6, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mario James, Gleaner Writer

In Tom Clancy's epic novel Debt of Honor, the world is brought to the brink of World War III. The book starts by depicting the death of a family that was burnt to ashes in a Japanese car on American roads because of a faulty gas tank, and ended with an embittered Japanese airline pilot flying his passengerless 747 into the Capitol building in Washington, DC. The US president and other governmental and judicial heads are killed.

The film was produced in 1994. It's funny how life sometimes imitates art. Art can be prophetic sometimes.

Modern motor vehicle manufacturers do not make all their vehicles' components. They may press body panels, make engines, transmissions and other major components but maybe 50 per cent of the components such as door handles, computers, power-steering pumps, steering racks, alternators, and so on, are outsourced.

Manufacturers, however, usually design the entire car in-house, and put through to tender the parts they can't or won't produce. They work with the winning contractor on quality-control standards. The industry is built on globalisation; because they have less control over the finished product, in-house quality control is usually very rigorous. After all, it is their name that is emblazoned front and rear on the finished product.

Late last November, Mark Saylor, a state trooper with 19 years behind his badge, his wife, Cleofe, daughter Mahala, as well as his brother-in-law, perished in a Lexus because of 'unintended acceleration'. His loaner Lexus' accelerator allegedly stuck open - witnesses said that the car eventually did 100mph - and the inevitable occurred. The car rear-ended a Ford Explorer, hit a kerb and demolished a fence before glancing an embankment and going airborne and subsequently bursting into flames. Four people were killed, all inside the Lexus.

unintended acceleration

This eventually led to the mother of all recalls for Toyota. Trouble was, this wasn't the start of the problem. The accident only focused the headache. Months before, a recall was issued for floor mats that caused the same symptoms. Toyota said the carpets rode up under the pedal and caused it to stick. But if the stories on the Internet are to be believed, Toyota's unintended acceleration problems have been happening for quite some time.

While not affecting Jamaica or the Caribbean, the current Toyota recall centres around a driveby-wire component - the accelerator pedal assembly - that has a faulty feedback system.

Because the accelerator is no longer physically linked to the throttle in the engine bay (the pedal is essentially a variable-resistance unit that sends an electric signal to the car's computer), a system of feedback had to be designed into the pedal so that the pedal would feel like a pedal. Instead of just a spring, the feedback mechanism is set up like the drag on a fishing reel.

It is this feedback system that is prone to sticking. However, data generated by Toyota suggest the sticking problem is a non-issue - that the event only occurs in colder climates under certain conditions, and even then the pedal didn't stick - it only returned to the idle position slowly.

the problem

Whether the problem is real or not, the American public certainly perceives it as one. Folks are coming out of the woodwork on this one and the ambulance chasers are in full song. Class-action suits are being filed from Maine to Maryland. Two contractors build pedals for Toyota - Denso, a Japanese company, and CTS, which is based in Elkhart, Indiana. The recall doesn't affect both companies. It is ironic that the US contractor dropped the ball on this one.

While the beleaguered CTS has posted releases that the problems with Toyota's 'unintended acceleration' have preceded the business relationship, and that CTS had been given quality awards by Toyota in the past couple of years, they still come off smelly.

Conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day on this one. It could be argued that an opportunity exists to take down the No. 1 automaker. The behind-in-points-boxer is being told that the champ has a glass jaw, and the bell for the 12th round is about to ring. Cry Havoc, and let slip the Dogs of War.

Fold these happenings into the rumours about the Prius - Toyota's best-selling hybrid - about its allegedly floaty-feeling braking system and it's not hard to see milky conspiratorial swirls in the cappuccino. The Honda Fit - Jazz in some markets - also allegedly has quality issues. Reports indicate a window switch can short and burst into flames if (intentionally) doused in liquid.

under attack

The Japanese car consortium is under attack. We could be witnessing the start of the end of the Oriental mass-car market domination, properly orchestrated and complete with fireworks.

This is huge. Toyota has built its image on conservative vehicles that are engineered for quality, safety and reliability. The Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) squandered their goodwill earned in the first six decades of the 20th century by being ineffectual in dealing with market needs in crisis situations and by thinking that they could dictate the market.

The guard has recently changed. The Big Three are back in a big way today; re-energised, restructured and efficient. And very hungry.

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