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Ah So! Coincidence You Say?

National Issues, Politics

Toyota's gas pedal woes have pushed Afghanistan and the economy off the front pages. One would think the entire free world is threatened by a sticky accelerator. ABC News has dug up 2000 accidents and 16 deaths over many years, supposedly attributed to runaway acceleration of Toyota automobiles. Unfortunately, none of these are confirmed by official accident investigations. A highly-publicised four-car accident in Florida blamed on a sticky Toyota gas pedal turned out to be caused by improperly-installed homemade floor mats. Other reports are anecdotal without identification of a specific cause.

Reports of runaway acceleration have been around for years, ever since automobile engines have been controlled by computers. Pressing on your accelerator pedal no longer opens a throttle plate in the carburetor via a mechanical cable. In most modern cars, it merely creates an electrical input to the car's computer which then controls the fuel injection system to increase fuel and air flow. Audi and VW have been accused for years through anecdotal reports of electrical defects causing runaway acceleration. No defect has ever been found.

Now for the coincidence. Last year, Toyota announced it was closing its Fremont, CA, auto assembly plant, called NUMMI for New United Motors Manufacturing, because they say GM pulled out of a joint venture agreement. About 5,000 union jobs are involved. Some have speculated that this only UAW-organized Toyota plant proved too expensive to operate in sunny Taxifornia. Regardless, the UAW is highly incensed, especially since shortly thereafter Toyota announced it was building a new plant in non-union Mississippi. So, about a week ago about 100 UAW demonstrators gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Washington and delivered a nasty letter of protest to the ambassador.

This took place shortly after Toyota's gas pedal woes burst upon the national scene. Since then, Congress and the Feds have piled on poor Toyota, threatening all sorts of investigations, making outrageous allegations and even issuing veiled suggestions that Toyota's flagship Prius hybrid, by far the best of the hybrids, has brake and acceleration problems caused by "electrical glitches." Again, no hard evidence. The fact that the Chevy Volt priority-electric vehicle is due for release this year is just a coincidence--right? 

O.K., what are the facts. Toyota's floor mats are quite thick (I know, I have them in my Camry) and are held in place by tricky little floor clips that are rather difficult to re-attach if the mats are removed, say for cleaning. If these clips, admittedly not the best design I've ever seen, are not re-attached properly, the mats could shift and interfere with accelerator pedal movement. Toyota claims the major problem is slow pedal return caused by floor mat interference, which can be quite disconcerting. Their fix is a shim which raises the back of the pedal to provide additional clearance. They deny any electrical problems, and in truth there is no evidence to support that allegation.

So, are we seeing an attempt by the Feds to strike a blow at largely non-union Toyota as another payoff to the UAW? Or perhaps this is an attempt to boost sales of Government Motors at Toyota's expense. Or both. Ford, a major Democratic supporter, is licking their chops in anticipation. Toyota's stock has taken a half-gainer off the high board.

Look for the appearance of ads sticking it to Toyota. Look for this attack to continue and be blown into a huge safety issue, including Democratic Congressional hearings and investigations, as though no other car company ever had a safety-related recall. This appears to me to be more about politics than safety.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to drive my Camry, enjoying the best car I have ever owned.

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