Saturday, March 06, 2010

Toyota: Not So Fast, Guys

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.

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 last year, an off-duty policeman and three of his family suddenly felt their new Lexus jet 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, 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 all of the United States, Toyota has exactly one machine that can read a car's onboard data recorder to assist in diagnosing accidents and problems after the fact. This appears to be an attempt on the part of the automaker to control the production of potentially damaging information, since dealers and other interested parties cannot access the data. After a crash the day after Christmas in Texas that killed four people appeared to be due to unintended acceleration, things spun out of even Toyota's control. On January 26, they took the extraordinary step of halting sales of about half their models until the mechanical accelerator fix can be applied. It turns out this is 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." As of this writing, the question of whether Toyota's electronic throttle system is to blame as well as the mechanical pedal problems is still under investigation. But there is plenty of smoke around to justify the conclusion that there's a fire in that department as well.

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. Although the story is still unfolding, there is enough evidence already to conclude that 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. We do not know yet what Toyota knew about the problem, or problems, and when they knew it. But it is already clear that whatever they knew, they didn't want anyone else to know. It took a courageous news outlet (a print one, at that) 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. I wonder how long it would take a gang of clever Caltech undergrads to crack Toyota's automotive data-recorder code. If somebody hasn't done it already, they ought to as a public service.

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. But losing money is one thing, and losing one's life to a preventable technical defect is another order of thing altogether. Some estimates say that perhaps fifty or so people have died as a result of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars. That is a small fraction of the total of annual auto-related deaths in this country. But the engineers who could have prevented these deaths failed to do so. And that's what engineering ethics is about.

Sources: Motortrend Magazine online has a good chronology of the Toyota recall and related issues up to late January at http://www.motortrend.com/features/auto_news/2010/112_1001_toyota_recall_crisis/index.html. I also referred to a recent Los Angeles Times article on Congressional hearings about the matter at http://www.latimes.com/sns-ap-toyota-recall,0,7766384.story. For the record, I drive a Honda.

5 comments:

  1. All Car Companies should have came forward with a full disclosures of what car were dangerous. Instead of waiting for a huge media blitz and tons of public pressure. I never seen so many car companies GM - NISSAN - TOYOTA - HYUNDAI having recalls all at the same time. I had no idea my car was affected until I looked on http://www.carpedalrecall.com and found I had a bad Anti Lock control unit on my 2008 Pontiac G8 , my co workers Ford Truck had a recall also. So be careful

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  2. Great article. I'm just glad my Toyota wasn't included in the recall.

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  3. We need to go after the professulas who inflicted America-hating Trotskyite Deming Juran Japanese participative Toyotagate management on this country! "Industrial engineering" is soviet economics and "financial engineering" is soviet finance because they don't believe in free markets and try to manipulate trends instead. Bitter Gallusour impuned te intellect of GWB43. Climategate is what happens when universities become addicted on federal grants for research, so they invent catastrophes like Y2K or global warming to extort a bigger fix of money. This is a continuation of Climategate and ACORN/PIRG/ARA-gate, used to make America subservient to the professulas. If securities rules applied to federal research grants, half the professors would be in jail! The Professulas, trial lawyers and union organizers are Obama's core constituencies. Universities, libraries, museums and other public beneficiaries extort their patrons to lobby on their behalf using taxpayer resources. That's what ACORN and PIRG are about. They even encourage students to max out their loans and invest the proceeds so the school can up its total. Obama learned the trick when he worked for Don Kent at tuition-funded Arms Race Alternatives, while they denied admission to Young Americans for Freedom or even the pro-nuclear Social Democrats. Ted Markowitz used the Xerox 9700 to make fliers for the June 12th nuclear freezers, but persecuted students for smaller infractions. Look how they destroyed a supply side hero like Jeff Bell!

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  4. Despite Jacks rant the recall is not about "Toyota methods" or Deming or even "Toyota Management" as if it is something different.

    Many are talking about how to address this kind of RESULT at Toyota and elsewhere, with management and technical tools, etc.

    This will all be a waste of time.

    The problem is not with tools, or oversight, or lessons learned, and so on.

    The problem is the conflict between Human Beings as employees knowing what is "right" if "they were in charge", and the fact that they are employees of a Public Corporation.

    A Public Corporation is a legal invention and exists only on paper. It is not a human being. As such, it can not care, has no morals, has no sense of right or wrong. If it WERE some kind of living person, it would actually be a "sociopath"! The ONLY motiviation of a corporation is to "make money". The corporation does not actually have any disincentive for employees to act illegally or immorally themselves so long as the result is more profit. It is left to the individual to refuse to behave in illegal or immoral fashion. Thus depending upon INDIVIDUAL Human ethical views, you have tremendously varying decision making.

    The core of this quandry is revealed everyday when one human tells another "it's not personal, it's just business". Of course that is baloney. Everything between human beings is personal. What has just happened is that one human is taking orders from the corporation, which has sole motive of making money, and so has done the bidding of the corporation.

    This is not evil. Good and evil are human qualities of choice. The Corporation is not human and just functions how it was designed--- chartered.

    Many decisions that are RIGHT are made contrary to the corporate motivation. Those who make such a decision have to be of sufficient status that they will be supported by other interests sufficient to counter the corporate "make money" motivation.

    Thus you have Mr. Toyoda, the leader of the family holding controlling interest in ownership of the corporation coming in to speak to the issues, and (he hopes) OVER-RIDE the damands of the Corporation on its employees to "make money no matter what".

    Until and unless moral and ethical standards and requirements are part of the Corporate Charter, and thus enforced from the highest management level, board level, and even SEC level (as charter requirements)---- these troubles like Toyota will continue.

    In my view the problem for us, car buyers, is not that something went wrong with the car. It is a tremendously complicated device, and things can go wrong. The problem is the decision to hide it, leading to denials and deceeption--- to whatever aspect the truth coincides with perception. That is the problem. It will remain until the nature of American Corporations is addresssed.

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  5. Great article, For unintended-acceleration their may be many possibilities, like floor mat, software failure or user error, but except user error, remaining parts are manufactured by Toyota or it's third party companies, so we need to dig down the problem to the earth so that we got to know weather same parts are using in any other vehicle?(bcz most of companies use common third party parts).
    And federal government should stop sales of problematic models until to get the issue fixed.

    Joshua's Law

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