In November, I went to California for a test drive of the all-new Lexus GS, the Japanese luxury marque’s first major attempt at injecting sportiness into its otherwise sedate midsize sedan. As with all other motoring media events, this one gave me the opportunity to mingle with some of the brand’s executives. One such executive was Paul Williamsen, the national manager of Lexus College, a bureau that provides technical training to Lexus salespeople and service personnel in the United States.
Prior to meeting Paul, I had seen his online videos that sought to explain various high-tech features found on Lexus cars in a manner that you and I could understand. Back then, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that I would one day chat with the man face to face, never mind sharing a joyride with him. He had struck me as an extremely knowledgeable guy who’d only speak with someone like me if the two of us got marooned on a desert island. And even then it would probably be just to ask for flint stones so he could start a fire.
Paul Williamsen, just so you know, is sort of a nerd. A very nice nerd, but a nerd all the same. And I mean that as a compliment. I mean that he could join Jeopardy and my money would be on him. I mean that he could tell you exactly how Siri works and you’d pass on the information to your drinking buddies like you had just emerged from Apple’s Cupertino digs. I mean that you could ask him any topic and he would make you feel as though you were browsing Wikipedia. I’m sure I’m already exaggerating here, but this is how I felt the whole time I had the privilege to converse with Paul.
Paul--whose idea of leisure is joining the Baja 1000 off-road race aboard a Lexus LX570--is the guy that Lexus hauls to media events to answer smart-alecky questions from probing automotive journalists. He is the brand’s walking cheat sheet. I got the sense that the GS’s Japanese engineers and designers were more at ease and more confident just from knowing that Paul was there to field the difficult product-related queries. Considering how the Japanese detest being put on the spot, this guy must be raking in a fortune just for sparing them from the potential PR disaster.
Mr. Williamsen, it turns out, isn’t just an exceptionally bright fellow--he’s also very friendly. He’s friends with Ryan Bacsafra, a US-based Filipino running a community website for Lexus owners. (He even made arrangements for Ryan to join us for dinner.) And he friended me on Facebook. This man couldn’t have been faking all this friendliness, could he?
Thanks to Paul’s jovial nature, I mustered enough guts to steer our in-car conversation from the all-new GS to a presumably awkward subject for him: Lexus’s (and therefore Toyota’s) supposed problem with “sudden unintended acceleration.” It felt like asking Vicki Belo point-blank if she could twitch her cheeks.
Maybe I was out of line asking an executive of Paul’s stature something that was obviously not on the occasion’s agenda. After all, he was there to explain the GS to me, not veer toward an issue that his company would almost certainly rather forget. But the topic of unintended acceleration had been a cerebral itch lodged somewhere in my brain, begging to be scratched. Who better to do the scratching than one of the most technically enlightened people at Lexus, who also happens to be a former Audi technician (back when, interestingly, the German carmaker was beset with the same problem in the ’80s)? Plus, Paul’s easygoing demeanor convinced me that he wouldn’t mind.
Thankfully, he didn’t.
There are two things that I picked up from this discussion--which further cemented what I’d believed all along (that “sudden unintended acceleration” simply doesn’t exist)--and I’d like to share them with you.
First, Toyota/Lexus will never pin the blame on the customers, even when it’s clearly the latter’s fault. The carmaker learned from the Audi 5000 maelstrom that it would be in the company’s best interest not to publicly accuse its clients of being in the wrong (even if said clients were indeed in the wrong).
Audi had successfully proven that its much-maligned car didn’t accelerate on its own, and that in fact it was the owners who had inadvertently stepped on the throttle when they’d really meant to step on the brake pedal. This was mainly due to the cramped pedal layout of the 5000 versus that of a rival Buick from which most Audi 5000 customers had migrated. Particularly telling was the fact that there was no reported incident, according to Paul, among owners of the turbo (and thus higher-end) version of the 5000. This was because Buick owners had merely crossed over to the standard-model 5000, not the more expensive 5000 Turbo.
Even so, Audi had a hard time getting back its reputation for quality and reliability in the US. The lesson here is that a company should never engage its own customers in a pass-the-blame contest, no matter who’s right and who’s wrong. Almost three decades later and many people still associate the stigma with Audi. There are likely more people today who still believe that the 5000 was really at fault, even if the opposite has been proven to be true.
Toyota/Lexus knows this now. So it knows better than to hold a press conference and tell the world that the problem is really a matter of driving error. Instead, the carmaker terms it as “pedal misapplication,” careful not to directly attribute to its customers the usually harmless but sometimes fatal blunder. Besides, some complainants sincerely believe that they’re innocent. In a state of panic, a driver often loses accurate recollection of the real sequence of events. And that’s just the sincere complainants we’re talking about here. The bogus ones--those who simply want to escape culpability in an accident--are another story altogether.
And when a death is already involved, it makes it all the more complicated. You don’t just attach “driver error” to a dead person. You’d get pummeled in the press. No, you just absorb it all and offer to conduct a thorough investigation--even if you’re 99 percent positive there’s nothing wrong with your product. Which brings me to the second thing I learned from Paul.
No matter what they do or how hard they try, Toyota/Lexus engineers cannot replicate this so-called “sudden unintended acceleration.” Even the ultra-high-tech National Aeronautics and Space Administration can’t do it. The plain and simple fact is that no one in the car industry can. Modern electronic throttle controls boast fail-safe mechanisms that make involuntary speeding virtually impossible. With all the technology available to us today, you would think something like this should have been fixed by now. But how do you fix something you can’t even troubleshoot or recreate? As it is, “sudden unintended acceleration” exists only in the words and claims of those supposedly “victimized” by it.
This is not to imply that all the reported incidents were caused by driver error. Many of them were the result of other factors, the most common of which is the uncomplicated case of the floor mat jamming the gas pedal.
That family that died in a supposedly runaway Lexus ES in California in 2009, with no less than an off-duty highway patrol officer at the wheel? It was found that the wrong floor mat (designed for the bigger RX) had been installed in the ES, which caused the accelerator to stick. To make matters worse, they discovered that the brake pads had been severely worn-out even before the family used the car (a loaner unit from a Lexus dealer), and this was because at least one customer who had driven the car had encountered the same floor-mat problem and practically gutted the brakes to steer clear of danger. This customer reported the problem to the dealer but said dealer apparently took no action.
I’m not trying to propagate a corporate spiel here. This--that “sudden unintended acceleration” is spurious--had been my firm belief even before that Lexus GS trip to California. That Paul Williamsen personally confirmed it was a mere formality. I don’t expect you to accept this as foolproof. But I guarantee you that I can (and will) put my money where my mouth is by continuing to ride in cars equipped with electronic throttle control systems and automatic transmissions, regardless of whether these cars are by Lexus or Toyota or Audi or Mitsubishi.
Photo by Vernon B. Sarne