The politics of Toyota-bashing

Revealing vignette from AP coverage last month:

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero has been pushing [Michigan Attorney General Mike] Cox to aggressively go after the Japanese automaker, saying in a statement last week that Cox should file a claim on behalf of all owners of Toyota vehicles in Michigan and seek to recover damages under state and federal consumer protection laws.

“If Mike Cox won’t stand up for Michigan consumers and hold Toyota accountable for these reprehensible actions, he isn’t doing his job,” Bernero said. The Lansing mayor heads the Mayors and Municipalities Automotive Coalition, an advocacy group for communities that depend on the domestic auto industry.


  • Hmm, problem with that is Toyota is gaining a physical presence in the state of Michigan with its large, well paying technology research center outside of Ann Arbor, situated along a busy highway. Bashing Toyota in this manner I think may backfire on the good mayor, as liberal Ann Arbor is coming to depend on those kinds of jobs.

  • As far as I can tell, there is still no real evidence that there is any defect in Toyotas. If so, what is Toyota “repairing” in the recalled vehicles?

  • Bill

    > If so, what is Toyota “repairing” in the recalled vehicles?

    Its shattered reputation, I suppose.


    Interesting factoid. Remember back in law school the first time judicial review was ever invoked to strike down a law. That wouldn’t be Marbury, but actually Dr. Bonham’s case, an English case where a law was considered so noxious to justice that it was struck down.

    The principle of the case was simply this: no one should be a judge in their own case.

    So today we have GM becoming Government Motors and then what do you know? Toyota suddenly has problems, and gets a record fine, effectively throwing them to the wolves of accident-chasing law.

    Now maybe Toyota really had a genuine problem. but you can’t help but wonder: would we even be talking about this if GM hadn’t been bailed out? Or would this story have been less likely to have garnered so much publicity by the government?

    Of course in Dr. Bonham’s case they struck down a panel of doctors judging on the qualifications of doctors, on the theory that if doctors regulated their own industry, corruption was inevitable. That was how they were a judge in their own case, and of course since then we have repeatedly violated that principle. Indeed our bar associations revere that precedent in one breath while their very existence violates it. So maybe that elementary rule of fairness has no weight any more.

  • Bill’s question is a crucial one. I can’t recall anyone — Toyota, trial lawyers or their surrogates, NHTSA, anyone — asserting that the sticky pedal issue underlying the giant fine is a primary contributor to most, or even many, acceleration incidents. (A sticky-pedal theory would leave unexplained, e.g., why the brakes failed to overcome the acceleration.) If it isn’t an important cause, then why did Toyota do a recall? One might guess (without knowing) that they wanted to offer _some_ fix, rather than be accused of just sitting around doing nothing. The company would have had some internal debate over whether this proposed pedal defect was a defect at all, or actually causing any accidents, and so of course it would appear tardy in reporting it as a defect, since it would take a while for the “nominate it as a defect” faction to prevail.

    If I’m wrong in these guesses, I hope someone will correct me.

  • Another question might be “why were dealers in Europe notified of issues before dealers in the US and Canada?”

  • A sticking accelerator pedal, combined with a poorly-trained (or poorly-skilled) driver can cause an accident. Personally, I would hold the driver to be the primary cause of the accident with the mechanical failure merely contributing.

    Drivers are erroneously taught to shift into neutral if they suspect a sticking accelerator pedal. The problem is that there are driving scenarios where it’s not obvious that your pedal is sticking and it seems like your brakes aren’t working. Drivers should be taught: “If you experience unexpected acceleration or reduced braking effectiveness, unless you can positively rule out the engine as the source, shift into neutral.”

    For example, if you are climbing a hill on a highway, you press the accelerator pretty hard. You release as you crest the hill and expect to accelerate down the hill. If the accelerator is sticking, you won’t notice until you’re going to fast and try to apply the brakes. In that case, you didn’t press the accelerator recently and have no reason to believe the accelerator is sticking — it will seem like brake problems. An improperly-trained driver will not shift into neutral in that case. A properly-trained driver will.

  • The first recall was over all-weather floor mats that can cause a gas pedal to jam. I saw an engineer for a competing car company duplicate the problem easily in a Lexus- the mat jams the pedal to the floor and you can’t get the pedal off the floor without fixing the mat. A very dangerous problem, and a very real one. The recall “solution” was to replace the floor mats.

    I know there are other problems being addressed with the pedal mechanism, but don’t know much more than that. However, it is not disputed by anyone (even Toyota) that the floor mats were defective and could cause unintended acceleration. Everything about electronic throttle problems is speculation at this time.

    As for Lansing, Michigan Mayor Bernero’s statement? Yes, it’s political. But no more so than Texas governor Rick Perry reflexively defending Toyota because they have at least one plant in Texas.

  • I’d caution only that we be careful in our use of the word “defect”. the floor mats performed their proper function. They weren’t “defective” in the common understanding of “became broken”. The floor mats in these vehicles didn’t fail. More accurately, they were designed in a way that may not have given sufficient consideration for the possibility that they might promote pedal entrapment under certain circumstances.

    I’ve experienced pedal entrapment from a floor mat. Not in a Toyota product. I blamed myself for choosing the wrong floor mat for my make/model/year, improperly maintaining it, and failing to keep it properly installed. I’d observe, however, that that is more personal responsibility than Americans seem to want to assume nowadays. Sad reflection on our society, I believe.

  • I’m going to have to stick with the word defect. A floormat that is designed in such a way that it can cause the floormat to stick has a dangerous condition that outweighs its benefits. The floormat retention mechanism was also defectively designed in that it allows a super-thick mat for an SUV to fit in a much smaller vehicle. Competing brands mix up the placement of the retention holes so you cannot do that.

    The strongest evidence that the floor mats are defective comes from Toyota, as “defect” is the word they chose to use in their own recall letter:

    “Toyota has decided that a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety exists in certain 200_ through certain 200_ model year [name of model] vehicles. The defect is the potential for an unsecured or
    incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position.”

    In your case, you chose your own floormat without measuring/verifying/etc. Toyota buyers assumed that Toyota engineers did that work for them. Toyota didn’t, and personal responsibility dictates that Toyota pay for the result of their failure.

  • I wish my marketing department had the U.S. Gov’t at its disposal. I’d use the bully-pulpit the same way as G.M.

  • Justinian – one, the language of all such letters, regardless of manufacturer, reads the same. Do not attribute the language to Toyota alone, as the words were chosen for them. Second, I suggest you read further, as your post assumes facts not in evidence (bold mine):

    …the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat…

    That’s “user error” and “user error”. User error in the first case by thru failure to resecure the mat after removing it for cleaning, picking up loose change, etc, and user error in the second case for either doing as I did, or placing a second floor mat (such as the ubiquitous “all weather” floor mats) on top of the first, to protect the factory floormats from dirt, mud, etc. In other cases, people remove their floor mats and flip them over (carpet down, rubber up), again to keep the mats from getting dirty. In short, the “defect” is that the vehicle isn’t, apparently, sufficiently idiot proof. The defense of too stupid to take responsibility for one’s actions is not one I find palatable.

  • Todd,
    as one in the industry, I believe you have mis-attributed to GM the acts of others. Certainly, GM (and Ford, far more so) is gaining some traction from recent events (ignoring, for a moment, that some GM products are substantially identical to the Toyota products in the news, and built at the same factory, by the same (now) laid off workers), but GM can hardly be claimed to have control of the pulpit.

    Certainly, new fuel economy regulations are no friend to any full line vehicle manufacturer – though they might be better than a patchwork of California regulations across the nation. Nor are the numerous state by state “Lemon Law” changes that have swept the nation since Chrysler’s bankruptcy, and GM’s following. Finally, plenty of people have sought to attach liability to the new GM for the actions of the old, in spite of the rulings of the bankruptcy court.

    If there is a bully pulpit out there (one I think you will find any number of politicians on), I submit that GM is at best an unintended beneficiary. There are others among the voting public to whose benefit that pulpit is focused.

  • CarLitguy: Floor mats from competing manufacturers can become detached and will not jam the gas pedal. Other competing vehicles also have spring pressure on the gas pedal that is so strong that no floor mat will jam the pedal to the floor.

    Floor mats from competing manufacturers are keyed to specific vehicles. For example, you can’t take a floor mat from an SUV and use it in a compact car because the retention holes are keyed differently. This insures than neither users nor dealers mistakenly install the wrong mat. (If the dealer does it, is it the user’s fault for not catching the dealer’s error?) Floor mats from competing vehicles are also labeled to prevent the same problem.

    Finally, if you choose to believe that the floor mats are not defective because they did in fact protect the carpet, that’s fine. However, the floor mats meet the legal definition of a defective product. Under the Restatement 3d of Torts, (which is sometimes criticized as being too friendly to manufacturers) a product is defective if:

    “the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller or other distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.”

    There is no question that the floor mat becoming detached is foreseeable. There is no question that reasonable alternative designs for floor mats that won’t jam the gas pedal exist and could have been used by Toyota. There is room for argument whether that renders the product not reasonably safe, but I think it does.

  • “Other competing vehicles also have spring pressure on the gas pedal that is so strong that no floor mat will jam the pedal to the floor. ”
    Any spring that strong would make a car undriveable for more than a few miles. If a floor mat is wrinkled lengthwise, it can block any gas peddle.

  • Justinian,
    no amount of keying, short permanent attachment to the floorboards, prevents a user from NOT correctly installing it after cleaning or the like. And, while many manufacturers do make floor mats specific to certain models, any number of “universal” floor mats still exist. Nor can manufacturers prevent someone from installing one floor mat over another.

    Manufacturers see all of the above, plus their own floor mats removed and installed upside down – for reasons suggested in my earlier post. I stand by my earlier comment – a car can’t be made idiot-proof.

    Other than perhaps Ralph Nader, I’m not sure who thinks the 3rd Restatement of Torts is too manufacturer friendly, premised in part as it is on retrospective forseability.

  • Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps Fred Flinstone had the right idea about floor mats.

  • It seems to me that the discussion here of whether the floor mats are defective misses the point. If the floor mats are designed in such a way as to come loose and jam the gas pedal, although the floor mats may perform their intended function perfectly and therefore not be defective in and of themselves, the vehicle as a whole is defective. Whether or not a product is defective is not determined merely by the defectiveness of its components but by how they interact.

  • Bill Alexander: I have to disagree with you about the strength of a spring mechanism. I witnessed an auto engineer place a floormat on top of its pedal, and every time he did so, the pedal popped back. I don’t know the sales figures of the vehicle in question, but I know they’re high enough that the pedal spring isn’t turning consumers off. Try pushing your pedal to the floor and putting your floor mat on it and see what happens in your car.

    CarLitGuy: You’re changing the subject a bit. I agree that the other problems you mention do exist. But that doesn’t mean that Toyota’s floor mats aren’t defective for reasons I detail at a post at Of course Toyota isn’t to blame if a driver buys a generic floor mat and installs it in his vehicle upside-down on top of his Toyota floor mats and that causes a problem. But a Toyota floor mat in a Toyota shouldn’t jam the gas pedal.

    I’m also going to agree with you that no car can be made idiot proof, and if one ever was, we’d just build a better idiot. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about whether the test under the 3rd Restatement is too friendly to manufacturers.

  • “The strongest evidence that the floor mats are defective comes from Toyota, as ‘defect’ is the word they chose to use in their own recall letter:

    ‘Toyota has decided that a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety exists in certain 200_ through certain 200_ model year [name of model] vehicles. The defect is the potential for an unsecured or
    incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position.'”

    This says a defect exists in the *vehicle* in that an unsecured or incompatible floor mat can interfere with the accelerator pedal. If you think about it, how can a problem that can involve an incompatible floor mat possibly be a defect in the factory-supplied floor mat?

    The defect is in the arrangement of parts, not any one part.