How Real are the Defects in Toyota's Cars?

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One of the great mysteries of the Toyota debacle is why Toyota ignored the complaints for so long.  Or at least it's a mystery to reporters on cable news, abetted by consumer advocates who were all too happy to imply that Toyota didn't care how many people it killed as long as they made a profit.


Maybe so, but I doubt it; you don't usually make a profit by killing your customers.  It's too risky, in this age of nosy regulators and angry consumer activists.

Their behavior becomes a bit more explicable when you consider this argument from Ted Frank:

The Los Angeles Times recently did a story detailing all of the NHTSA reports of Toyota "sudden acceleration" fatalities, and, though the Times did not mention it, the ages of the drivers involved were striking. 
In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89--and I'm leaving out the son whose age wasn't identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger.
 These "electronic defects" apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them. (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators).
In the original Sudden Acceleration Incident craze that afflicted America in the late eighties, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration eventually ruled that the problem was "pedal misapplication", aka stepping on the gas when you meant to step on the brake.  These incidents were highly correlated with three things:  being elderly, being short, and parking (or leaving a parking space).    The elderly are more prone to the sort of neuronal misfiring described in yesterday's New York Times.  Shorter people have to hunt more for the pedals.  And starting up from a complete stop is the most likely time to press the wrong pedal.

I was interested in Frank's argument, so I took a look at the LA Times article, which is really admirably thorough.  Here are the results, categorized into a nifty, though not necessarily particularly useful, spreadsheet. I went one further than Frank, tracking down the ages of all but a couple of the named drivers. If y'all wondered why I wasn't blogging today, well, there's your answer.  I've excluded three cases where the information was just too sparse to have any idea what happened, but otherwise, that's the complete list.

Several things are striking.  First, the age distribution really is extremely skewed.  The overwhelming majority are over 55.

Age_and_Sudden_Acceleration_Incidents.png

Here's what else you notice:  a slight majority of the incidents involved someone either parking, pulling out of a parking space, in stop and go traffic, at a light or stop sign . . . in other words, probably starting up from a complete stop.


  SAIS2.png

In many of the other cases, we don't really know what happened, because there were no witnesses of exactly when the car started to run away.  

In fact, it's a little hard to be sure that some of the cases were sudden acceleration incidents, because the witnesses to what happened in the car were all killed; the family is trying to reconstruct what happened from their knowledge of the deceased.  Obviously, most people are going to err on the side of believing that the car was at fault, rather than a beloved relative.

Further complicating matters, most of the cases involve either a lawsuit against Toyota, a complainant facing possible criminal charges, or both.  

In some of the cases, the police or doctors have an alternate theory of what happened:  one of the SAIs was bipolar, which puts you at extraordinarily high risk of suicide, and no one knows what actually happened in the car.  At least two others involve young men who were driving at very high speed, which is something that young men tend to do with or without a sticky accelerator.  Several more of the drivers seem to have had a medical situation, like a stroke, to which doctors and/or police attribute the acceleration.

The oddest "striking" fact is that a disproportionate number seem to be immigrants--something like a third, by my count, which is about double the number of immigrants in the general population.  I have no idea what to make of that; are they more likely to file complaints with the NHTSA?  Maybe they're shorter, on average, or learned to drive later in life?  Or perhaps it's just a statistical fluke.

At any rate, when you look at these incidents all together, it's pretty clear why Toyota didn't investigate this "overwhelming evidence" of a problem:  they look a lot like typical cases of driver error.  I don't know that all of them are.  But I do know that however advanced Toyota's electronics are, they're not yet clever enough to be able to pick on senior citizens.

Unfortunately, that won't help Toyota much.  It will still face a wave of lawsuits, and all the negative publicity means that it may be hard for the company to get a fair trial.  Even if it does, the verdict in the court of public opinion will still hurt their sales for some time to come.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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