Call me an unintended acceleration skeptic. These days that’s like saying I don’t believe climate change is real or that I think the Earth is 5,000 years old.
I do believe climate change is real, however, and I believe all the science I’ve been taught over the years that the Earth has been around a lot longer than 5,000 years. But I don’t believe people’s cars are just running away out of control, not without some additional factors at play, anyway.
What’s the hedge fund connection? The smart money, in the short term, may be betting against Toyota’s share price. But in the long run I think the company will be a good long bet.
I’m not a scientist or an engineer, and I have never worked as an investigator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But I am old enough to recall the Audi sudden unintended acceleration cases from the 1980s. Many of those claims were attributed to driver error (hitting the gas instead of the brake), however Audi did take some steps to further separate the brake and gas pedals due to the complaints. There is one consolidated class-action lawsuit left in that case that I know ofâ€”Audi owners who claimed the re-sale value of their cars was hurt by the allegations and subsequent Audi recall. After 22 years of legal maneuvering, that case is still active in the courts. Meanwhile Audi has continued to make cars.
Look, it’s not that I don’t believe cars can suddenly and unexpectedly accelerate and that drivers can reasonably report being unable to stop them. In the pre-drive-by-wire electronic engine control days, gas pedals could get stuck to floor mats, or stuff rolling around on the floor could get behind the brake pedal. These days, computers control everything and presumably can go wiggy. Additionally, for reasons related to physics (heat) and mechanics (vacuum pressure), brake systems become less effective when a car’s throttle is wide open.
And yet, Car and Driver magazine tested three cars and in each of the cases the brakes were strong enough to overcome the engine’s acceleration. Even the 540-horsepower Rousch Stage 3 Mustang was eventually dragged to a stop.
“From 70 mph, the Roush’s brakes were still resolutely king even though a pinned throttle added 80 feet to its stopping distance. However, from 100 mph, it wasn’t clear from behind the wheel that the Mustang was going to stop. But after 903 feetâ€”almost three times longer than normalâ€”the 540-hp supercharged Roush finally did succumb, chugging to a stop in a puff of brake smoke.”
Granted, the lack of confidence at 100 miles per hour, even among experienced drivers, means that less experienced drivers would probably panic. But the brakes still eventually overpowered the engine.
I think what’s most likely at work here is a combination of bad ergonomic design (Toyota’s floor mats), an abysmal driver education system, distracted driving and plain opportunism (read: “plaintiffs”).
Toyota is fixing the ergonomic problems. I’m less convinced (and obviously Toyota is, too) that the vehicle ECMs are suddenly opening the throttles, but if we’re both wrong and there’s a severe software problem Toyota will address it for its own survival.
What I’m getting at is that even with all the bad publicity surrounding Toyota of late, these acceleration issues will mostly boil down to a) driver error, b) design flaws, or c) software flaws. There will be lawsuits, but as the Audi example shows they will likely drag on for years. Toyota seems willing to fight any claims that it has been negligent. A billion-dollar-plus settlement seems a remote possibility.
Meanwhile, once this period of hyper-focused bad publicity passes, two realities will emerge: First, Toyota by and large builds good vehicles that are affordable. And second, most of those vehicles are perceived as fuel-efficient. Oil prices are back above $80 a barrel.
There are plenty of holes in my argument, no doubt. But that’s my take on it anyway. Go long Toyota.