Toyota has copped a battering in the US following the recent recall of 4.2 million vehicles to replace floor mats — and another 2.4 million to install a shim behind the pedal assembly. And that is just in the US. A further two million vehicles have now been recalled worldwide.
The recalls were implemented after a spate of reports about Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) in various Toyota vehicles. That is, cars have apparently accelerated without driver input. The LA Times reports that at least 34 people have died in the US as a result of SUA in Toyota vehicles between 2003 and 2009. Toyota’s mass recall serves as a fascinating event in the culture of automobility: mass production meets mass culture and mass panic.
The full dimensions of the SUA crisis may not yet have been reached but to date there have been three separate recalls issued as part of the SUA crisis:
First, accelerator pedal recall. On 1 February, Toyota announced that it had engineered a solution to the sticking gas pedal problem. This involved fitting a little piece of metal to the pedal assembly. Some Toyota service departments stayed open 24 hours a day to complete the recall.
Second, floor mat entrapment recall. The floor mat in the driver’s foot-well allegedly got caught up with the accelerator pedal so the pedal couldn’t be released from the depressed position.
Third, brake override system. On 22 February, Toyota announced that it will install a brake override system to reduce engine power when both the accelerator and brake pedal are pressed simultaneously. (This fix will disappoint hoons who only know how to do a burnout by braking hard and then flooring the accelerator thus locking the front wheels and allowing the rear wheels to spin in rear-wheel drive cars.)
The problem now facing Toyota is that the "fixes" offered by the company may not have actually fixed the problem. There have been numerous reports of claims of SUA events in vehicles that have allegedly been fixed.
Not surprisingly, sales and market share for Toyota are in steep decline because of the SUA recall. A conspiracy theory that the US Government felt no need to alleviate Toyota’s woes because of its post-bailout interest in General Motors (which is now looking more robust in terms of raw sales and market share) got so much traction that it was specifically denied in the recent House Energy and Commerce hearings on the Toyota recalls.
At the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, made the case that the future of the company was fully automated driver-less vehicles. At the same time, Chief Technologist at GM, Larry Burns, stated, "We see vehicles going from being largely mechanical to becoming more and more electronic."
It was clear who GM had in their sights at the time as the Wall Street Journal noted when they reported the event. Mark LaNeve, GM’s US sales and marketing chief, told the Journal, "Toyota right now clearly has a leadership position on reputation, financial results, many other measures. That’s the position we need to attain."
A furore has erupted in the States over a "current affairs" style news report into the SUA. It emerged that expert commentary — later debunked — which sought to demonstrate flaws in a Toyota Camry’s electronic throttle was paid for by the lawyers representing litigants currently involved in a class action against Toyota. As Professor David Gilbert’s demonstration was debunked, the point was made that any cars with electronic throttles, when deliberately modified (which is what Gilbert did), will also lose control.
Motoring industry mega-site Edmunds.com has responded to the crisis in a highly entrepreneurial fashion. They’ve proposed an X-Prize type competition for researchers investigating the SUA with a $1 million prize to whoever can unravel the cause. The X-Prize is a $10 million one-off prize awarded to whoever achieves a specific goal, such as private spaceflight. Its purpose, according to the X-Prize Foundation website, is to incite "innovation by tapping into our competitive and entrepreneurial spirits". X-Prizes are not inherently technology-based, but so far their principal focus has been the development of new technologies.
Underlying the panicked responses to the Toyota recalls is an anxiety about the development and direction of new technologies. UK Top Gear magazine columnist, Paul Horrell, writing for the BBC News Magazine clearly articulates the problem with increased technological automation of vehicles and the loss of identity and freedoms that car owners experience: "[Consumers] don’t always want that level of soulless automation. They want an individual relationship with their cars … In an age where brands are a means of self-expression, that’s become a critical part of car marketing."
Make no mistake, what we are witnessing is the leading edge of the possible future of fully automated automobility. The ubiquity of ABS braking systems and cruise control show that we’ve already embraced technology-assisted automobility but the big game changes will come from technologies like "lane change" assistance and sat-nav-based traffic congestion avoidance journey assistance.
The "driver" will become a historical artefact of the culture of automobility. As Jeremy Packer noted in his book on US automobility, Mobility Without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship, there has been a strong connection between the self-control of the driver on the mythical "open road" and an enfranchised self-determining US citizenry. The panic over Toyota vehicles’ SUA is not so much a panic about technology itself but of losing control in the most intimate fashion over that which gives us the illusion of control.
Mike Allen at Popular Mechanics makes a strong case for how and why there is not a problem with the basic mechanics or mechatronics of fly-by-wire electronic throttle control in Toyota vehicles from either a design or an engineering point of view. Popular Mechanics is the original "how-to" bible for frontier technological determinists. This spirit of ruthless pragmatism was on show in late January when the magazine published an article entitled "How to Stop Sudden Unintended Acceleration".
The assumption underlying Allen’s piece is that if only consumers properly understood the engineering design behind fly-by-wire electronic throttle systems, then the population at large would not be filled with such panic. He is implicitly critical and disdainful of a particular kind of US consumer-citizen, the "stupid American".
The trope of the stupid American that pervades so much of US and international popular culture is of a lazy consumer-citizen profoundly comfortable with the conveniences afforded by modern technologies. A hyperbolic representation of the stupid American is found in the animated film Wall-E where a spaceship full of infantilised adult citizens are cared for by a paternalistic artificial intelligence. They are trapped in a constant state of dull comfort. Technology ceases to be the liberator and instead becomes the horror show of a technology that embodies an alien will. To move or to be moved, this is the question.
Whatever the answer, it is clear that the greater US public is concerned — even to the point of being fearful — of the direction that new automobile technologies are heading in. This is a future represented in such science fiction films as AI and Demolition Man, but what we are talking about here is science reality, not science fiction. The end game is completely automated vehicles and, unsurprisingly, this push has come from military research and development.
The real story in all this is not the actual design fault (if there even is a design fault), but the runaway panic about the future that has surged through the US car-owning public.
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