I have a hybrid Toyota Camry. I really like it. I like the gas mileage and how little I spend in a month for fuel. I like gliding through a parking lot like a silent silver shark. I like knowing that when I’m stuck in gridlock I’m not polluting. I like how the car handles and how it feels.
Unfortunately, according to both the news outlets and my Toyota dealership, my Camry was a Car of Death. The campaign (none dare call them recall) notice advised me that apparently my floor mats, which had seemed so helpful and humble, were in reality vicious entities ready to attack my accelerator pedal at any time and send me hurtling into oncoming traffic. I took my car in for the fix last week.
A nice dealership employee I’ll call Carl (his name wasn’t Carl) took my key and printed out the paperwork I needed to initial and sign. He explained that the process took about 45 minutes, acknowledged that I had an appointment but explained that because there were cars ahead of me they would probably need the car for most of the morning. This wasn’t any different from what I’d been told when I made the appointment. They offered me a shuttle ride and I asked if they could drop me off downtown.
I said, “Carl, isn’t it pretty obvious that these problems are not mechanical? They’re in the computers, right? Isn’t that what everyone thinks?”
Oh, my gosh. That got a reaction.
Carl’s responses reminded me of the Defcon levels, and he cycled through the responses with alacrity.
Level One Response: Denial. “No. It’s not the electronics. No, no,no.”
Level Two Response: Experts Say. “Some experts say that Toyota is a scapegoat, because everyone used this technology.” (I don’t know which experts, but I do believe that most American car companies are using Toyota’s technology.)
Level Three Response: User Error. “A lot of these incidents are user error,” he said. “They are.” I could only conclude that he had seen my facial expression change. I hate “user error” as an excuse. Carl’s own face turned faintly pink. “People hit the wrong pedal. They do it all the time. All the time. That guy in the Prius, he admitted it. And the family who was killed—well, no one knows what caused that one.”
Level Four Response: Dealership Error. In some cases, in some cars, the dealership installed the wrong floor mats, leading to, and here I quote, “Floor mat accelerator pedal entanglement.” He said, “I had a guy in here, he put a Welcome mat on the floor. A Welcome mat! Two inches thick!” Okay, I could see how that might lead to, um, “Floor mat accelerator pedal entrapment.”
Level Five Response: It just can’t happen. We spiraled all the way back to denial. “It can’t happen. It’s designed so if something goes wrong the car would stop before it would accelerate. It would have to. It can’t do what they’re saying it does.”
“Because there are two frequencies, separate frequencies, two separate frequencies and both frequencies have to interact and—and if one didn’t the car would stop before it would accelerate.”
I forebore to state the obvious; it would stop if the technology were working.
He said he’d heard they were thinking the problem was cosmic radiation. I asked if he were joking, and he said he was not. Since then I have heard that one proposed theory is the impact of solar flares.
A couple of things were immediately clear. The first thing was that these campaigns were personal to Carl. Plainly he doesn’t work at Toyota just for a paycheck. He’s loyal, proud of his vehicles and he’s personally affronted by this whole business.
It’s also clear that there has been a lot of discussion about this issue—and I don’t mean on-break or water cooler discussion. Obviously, Carl has been to more than one meeting—and obviously, talking points have been distributed.
The most important thing I learned was that Carl has no idea what is causing the problem.
I still like my car. I still trust my car. I admire loyalty, so I feel sorry for Carl, struggling to defend something he’d proud of, when deep down inside he knows something’s wrong. And something is wrong. We just don’t know what.