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More Q&A with Ken Bensinger on Toyota

February 12, 2010 | 12:04 pm
On Thursday, Times reporter Ken Bensinger chatted with readers about the Toyota story, which he has been covering since September. There were a number of questions that he did not have time to answer during the hourlong chat, so he answers them here:

Q (Bud): Hi... I was wondering...  Do you think the recent episodes of Toyota bashing is somewhat linked to Toyota closing down all US plants? I'm not saying that Toyota's recent Quality Assurance is great, but I haven't heard of any Honda bashing after its recall.
A (Ken Bensinger): Toyota has not closed down all U.S. plants. The automaker has manufacturing facilities in eight states. It is, however, planning to close its assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., next month. The plant, called New United Motor Mfg., is Toyota’s only unionized plant in the U.S. While it is true that the United Auto Workers union has used the Toyota recalls as a rallying cry in an attempt to reverse that decision, I have seen no evidence that these recalls were the action of union pressure. As to the Honda recall, that was a relatively minor action in terms of numbers of vehicles and number of people injured by the defect.

Q (Francisco): Do you know why they choose to install a piece of steel at the accelerator when it is supposed to be an electronic throttle system? My intuition would be to replace the electronic device which controls the throttle.
A (Ken Bensinger): Toyota has denied that the problem is in the electronic throttle system. The automaker says that sudden acceleration is caused by floor mat interference and sticking gas pedals, which it is remedying with a series of modifications to pedals and the foot well around the pedal. However, there are a number of safety experts who believe that electronics do play a role in the problem.

Q (Bill): I have a 2010 Venza.   Is the Venza one of the recalled vehicles?
A (Ken Bensinger): Yes, the Venza is part of the floor mat recall. It was not originally included in that recall, but late last month Toyota added five additional models, including the Venza. The Venza is not part of the sticking pedal recall.

Q (Vic): The recent reporting seems more focused on generating controversy than recognizing how truly unlikely unintended acceleration is to affect the average driver.  In reality this is a rare occurrence among the millions of Toyotas out there yet recent coverage has panicked many people.
A (Ken Bensinger): While it is true that sudden acceleration incidents are relatively rare, the same could be said about the tire blowouts and rollovers implicated in the Ford/Firestone recalls of a decade ago. The truth is, all cars are mostly safe most of the time. But those kinds of statistics mean nothing to the victims of sudden acceleration and their families, and are not an excuse for automakers and regulators to forestall improving auto safety as much as possible. The Times found late last year that 19 people had been killed since 2001 in crashes involving Toyota vehicles that allegedly accelerated out of control.

Q (Vikram): Would you encourage your friends to purchase either late model Hondas or Toyotas?
A (Ken Bensinger): Because of my role as an auto industry reporter, I would be uncomfortable making public recommendations for any makes or models of car or truck. I feel it would be inappropriate and suggestive of bias, which could damage my reporting and credibility. Sorry.

Q (Ana): Questions have arisen as to the political relationships of Toyota and the congressman and senators of the states putting out Toyota cars and even the NHTS.  How well do these steps and agencies fulfill the "trustworthy" aspect of my prior question?
A (Ken Bensinger): Not sure I completely understand the question, but it is certainly true that with major industries such as automaking, politics inevitably plays a role. Toyota has steadily built a political constituency around the country and employs 172,000 people directly or in its dealerships. Some very powerful congressmen and senators have Toyota plants in their districts, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader. But the same can be said for most major automakers, including Hyundai, Honda and even BMW, all of which have big manufacturing facilities in the U.S.

Q (Anne): Jerry Hirsch reports that Toyota has a relatively “small share” of complaints filed with the NHTSA.  Yet this story is on page 4, while continued negative stories about Toyota dominate the front page, which is scaring a lot of consumers including Toyota owners like me.  Why not put some positive news to put perspective to the overall coverage?
A (Ken Bensinger): The placement of the story that Jerry wrote, which cites a study by, is beyond either his or my control. Likewise, a story I wrote in December about a Consumer Reports study showing that Toyota received more complaints specifically about sudden acceleration than all other automakers ran on page 2 of the business section and not the section cover.

Q (Jimmycrackcorn): The software patch was mentioned in some of the recall/remedy material put out by Toyota, but then it disappeared.
A (Ken Bensinger): Toyota told me on Wednesday that the software patch -- what it is calling a “brake override” system that electronically commands the throttle to drop to idle when the brake is depressed -- is being installed in four models as part of the floor mat recall: the Camry, Avalon, Lexus ES and Lexus IS. Toyota will also install it on all new cars it makes by the end of this year. No decision has been made about installing it on other recalled models.

Q (Arlene): I know for a fact that the value of my ES350 has gone down tremendously.   I was told by a Lexus dealer that they had a "glut" of them and couldn't offer me much.  This certainly doesn't seem fair as I would like to get rid of the car and move on.  Also, how do other car manufacturers build cars without these problems?   What is Toyota not doing?
A (Ken Bensinger): Unfortunately, when a recall of this size and scope takes place, vehicle values often take a hit. This week, Kelley Blue Book said that Toyota values had fallen as much as 4.5% in the wake of the recalls. For many Toyota owners, there is little choice but to hold on to the car or sell it for less than expected. As for what Toyota isn’t doing, it’s hard to say. Over the past few decades, it’s done better than just about anyone at building cars that retain value. This recall issue has changed that dynamic, of course.

Q (S Gallegos): Hello Mr. Bensinger, nice reporting. Are other auto makers worrying about this situation? Are they taking necessary steps to avoid this recalls?
A (Ken Bensinger): I’ve talked to a number of executives at other automakers in recent months, and you'd  better believe they are watching this Toyota situation with an eagle eye. One official said that he immediately told his engineers to find out if his company used similar suppliers and whether such a problem could develop. So far, we haven’t seen anything.

Q (Jim Reardon): In a Prius, it is not possible to shift the car into neutral above 30 MPH.  The effort will be ignored by software.
A (Ken Bensinger): Not exactly a question, but an interesting comment. Not owning a Prius, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if so, it’s certainly an interesting point.

Q (Kelsey): Hi Ken -- following up from Glenn's comment: I just bought a 2010 Corolla this summer and am going to take it in to get the fix soon. But what exactly are they going to do to fix it, if, like Glenn said, it's not really the floor mat/pedals causing the problem? In other words, should I not take it in if they are just fixing something that's not broken?
A (Ken Bensinger): Kelsey, regardless of whether the pedal or floor mat fixes will prove to take care of the problem or not, I’d strongly recommend you take your vehicle to the dealership and get it done. First, it may indeed take care of the problem, which would be great. Second, even if it doesn’t, the resale value of vehicles that don’t have the fix is certain to be lower than those that do.

Q (Alexander): Do you believe that this fiasco for Toyota will open the floodgates for a more competitive marketplace and quite possibly cause Toyota to reduce their price point to be more competitive with car makers like Hyundai?
A (Ken Bensinger): Interesting thought. Toyota has developed a reputation for having the lowest incentives in the industry and being very firm on price. Clearly this situation, if it continues for much longer, could change that dynamic.

Q (Csufbomb): Is anyone just a tad uncomfortable that the government has been pounding Toyota so hard when they have a conflict of interest due to their ownership of GM?  Have you read the Popular Mechanics article about the recall backlash being overblown? 

A (Ken Bensinger): This issue has been raised of late. And while it is true that the U.S. Gov’t holds a 60% stake in GM, it’s important that Washington had that stake months before the first recall, when Toyota was still denying it had a sudden acceleration problem. I do think government played a role in this, but in general its role was prolonging the problem rather than increasing pressure on Toyota. The plot is much more complex, in any case, since as mentioned above many of the politicians involved represent districts with huge Toyota presences. John Dingell (D-Mich.) for example, has old loyalties to GM, but Toyota has a technical center in Michigan that employs over 10,000 people.

Q (Will): How much money has the toyota recall cost the government?  And will the government ask toyota for reimbursement?
A (Ken Bensinger): The cost of the recall falls on Toyota, not the government.

Q (Mary): Given the uncertainty about the role of the electronic throttle in unintended acceleration, is there any information you have about using electronics (cell phones, iPods) while driving a car that has an electronic throttle?
A (Ken Bensinger): The question of electromagnetic interference from personal electronics comes up from time to time in the auto industry. It’s one that the airline industry worries about, as most people know. Automakers say their vehicles are shielded from such radiation and that they test them by bombarding them with electrical and other signals before releasing them. That said, there are some engineers and scientists who believe such devices, in freak cases, could cause unexpected effects. Others postulate that more powerful sources, such as unlicensed transmitters or even cosmic rays, are more likely culprits.

Q (Megan): Ever since I heard the 911 call, I have also been concerned about the explanation of the sudden acceleration.  It seems clear to me that a CHP officer would have tried to lift the gas pedal and/or move the floor mat before he called 911 to report the problem. I fear for everyone I know who drives a Toyota, and I wonder if there is any way to speed the process of the investigation?
A (Ken Bensinger): The investigation of unintended acceleration, if that’s what you mean, is moving fairly quickly now that it’s drawn national attention. Congress will hold hearings on Feb. 24 and  25 and the Senate on March 2. We’ll see what happens after that.

Q (Vic Andreone): There is a concept in aerospace and government engineering and manufacturing, that the correction of "latent defects" in a product, even if initially accepted by the user, is the responsibility of the manufacturer.  How can Toyota justify only considering inclusion of the brake override fix in 2011 and up cars?
A (Ken Bensinger): That question is being asked by a lot of people right now. If we define the lack of such an override as a latent defect, then it would seem critical for Toyota to install it on all vehicles that use electronic throttle. As it stands, however, that has not been Toyota’s decision. There are rumblings that Congress may consider legislation requiring it in all vehicles, however. Stay tuned.

Q (Concerned Reader): Your articles have discussed how the U.S. Department of Transportations’ agency NHTSA has failed to properly review and investigate Sudden Acceleration in Toyota vehicles for something to the effect of the past 6 or 7 years.  I have done some research and found that over the past 25 years NHTSA has conducted similar Sudden Acceleration investigations of several different manufacturers and in most cases it has come up with the same “defect found” conclusion often blaming the problem on driver error. 
Your articles have briefly discussed how NHTSA has perhaps not dealt so well with investigating issues involving intermittent electronic issues.  Statistically when certain vehicles have symptomatic problems rationally one can surmise that something is wrong, but when our regulatory agency NHTSA can’t seem to identify problems what should the public expect if and when it is found out that the automakers are covering up their knowledge of the problem?  While I believe Toyota knows more than they are explaining, I also must believe that these past claims of Sudden Acceleration also have situations in which other automakers know of the cause, but if NHTSA and the press have failed to pressure the automakers into properly addressing the problems, why should they expose themselves? 
A (Ken Bensinger): Without question NHTSA’s role in the sudden acceleration issue is under a spotlight now. Congress has called NHTSA’s administrator, David Strickland, to testify, as well as the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The idea is to ask them how effectively their agencies were in spotting and investigating sudden acceleration trends and defects. Based on the research my colleague and I have done, I’d say there are some serious questions that need answering.

Q (Frank): Reportedly there was an article in today's Times concerning vehicles with push button start systems and that the paper's position was negative.  I have been unable to find this article, if there is one.  Can you comment on the issue and direct me to the article?
A (Ken Bensinger): There was an article in the Thursday paper about push button start systems, but I’m not sure I would qualify it as “negative.” It was stating the fact that Toyota is considering altering its keyless ignition systems to make it easier to shut off the vehicle in an emergency situation. Here is a link.

Q (Mark): I own a U.S.-made 2010 Corolla, as of yet I have received no notification of recall. Can I call my local Toyota dealer and schedule the recall work to be done?
A (Ken Bensinger): My understanding is that Toyota has not yet sent out recall notices to Corolla owners and that it is asking people to wait until they get one to get service work done, at least in the case of the floor mat recall. You may want to check with your dealership to see if they can perform the sticking pedal repair prior to then.

Q (Jeff): Everything they've said seems like a cover up of an electronics issue. The floormats in my car (Camry) don't come anywhere near to the gas pedal if installed correctly.
A (Ken Bensinger): You’re not alone in feeling that way. In our research, we found scores of complaints from people who experienced sudden acceleration but swear that their floor mats had nothing to do with it and don’t mention anything about a stuck pedal. Toyota would -- and has -- argued otherwise, but the company has yet to provide an adequate explanation for such cases.


Reader chat with Ken Bensinger on Toyota