Monday, March 01, 2010

[Cars, Rant] Toyotapocalypse

Toyotapocalypse: The Toyota recall theatrics have officially become full-on hysteria. What the actual facts might be are not even worth discussing, except for the sake of pedantry. Like currency in Zimbabwe, the truth no longer has value or meaning. Toyota has entered a world of pure feeling -- where impression, mood, spin, and emotional validation are all that matters.

There may or may not be a real problem with unintended acceleration. We will never know this now. But we will know that every time some jerk-off slams his Camry into a tree because he was composing a text message at 60 mph, it will be due to a diabolical accelerator pedal. We'll never know if the brake problems ever manifested in real world danger because every half-wit who dents his Prius on the way to the recycling center will have a scapegoat. It doesn't matter anymore. Facts and details and plain old perspective are as obsolete tail fins.

The loathsome sanctimony of two-bit congressional paper-pushers when they have the spotlight is deeply nauseating. The only thing I can think of that's more disgusting is that they will likely get rewarded for their pomposity at the ballot box. Then, in what would be high comedy if people in power weren't taking it seriously, one Rhonda Smith tearfully testified that her runaway Lexus kept accelerating beyond 100 mph, despite the fact that she had engaged the parking brake and shifted into reverse. It was only when God intervened that it finally slowed down. I'm surprised the radio didn't start shouting "Satan is Lord" while green puke sprayed form the vents. God may indeed have intervened, but all He did was nudge her panic-spasmed foot off the gas pedal. You know, some day in the far future, people will read these transcripts and be as astounded at our stupidity and we are at the Salem witch trials. The shameless ignorance on display at these hearings will define us as hapless tools and laughable morons for all eternity. Thanks for that, Legislative Branch.

(Oh, by the way, according to the WSJ, Ms. Smith sold the Lexus to another family for whom it has since been trouble free for 27,000 miles. One wonders whether Ms. Smith informed this family of the car's possessed soul and adjusted the price accordingly.)

The only thing that matters now is how well Toyota reads and manipulates public opinion. They have chosen to play the humility card -- apologizing, making huge public sacrifices, vowing to regain trust, blah, blah, blah. This is probably a wise move. Indignation is the coin of the realm and the best way to defuse moral self-righteousness is to be contrite and humble. The "populist" politicians and pundits can slam Toyota once, twice, maybe three times, but if you keep kicking a man when he's not fighting back, you become the bad guy.

When the news cycle rolls on and when the running shriek of consumer advocates dies down, there will be plenty of time to play hardball in actual court where actual arguments can be made and appealed and hopefully judged in some semblance of reason. But for now, play the game; weep in shame like you were facing the audience on Oprah -- because effectively, you are.

Some will mistakenly think themselves winners in this folly -- politicians scrambling for popular recognition, the UAW, folks who decry the loss of blue collar America, auto companies who had to beg for a bailout -- to these folks Toyota is symbolic of all their self-inflicted woes. They will rejoice as if it were a great comeuppance, but when their glee recedes they will still be in the toilet.

Some might actually be winners. Lawyers, checking up on Toyota's balance sheet and gearing up for class action suits all across the fruited plain, may garner good payouts, with some little percentage going to their clients. I may also be a winner if Toyota has to drop their prices to keep their sales up, because I am in the market for a new car and wouldn't hesitate to buy even a recalled Toyota on the cheap.

Story: Decades ago I owned a hand-me-down 1978 Ford Pinto. I was driving a friend to the airport on a viciously cold and snowy day when all of sudden the accelerator stuck. I tried to tap it couple of times to loosen it up but each tap just revved me higher. I started riding the brakes to keep my speed down. Things were getting dicey with a busy intersection coming up fast. So, at great risk to my engine I shifted into neutral, the engine screamed as the revs shot up quickly, but I managed to slow to where I could safely pull to the side of the road and kill the ignition. My friend, having no idea what was going on, just looked at me like I was on meth. I mumbled some sort of explanation and carefully restarted the car. The accelerator pedal worked fine. Never had that problem again. It was obviously some ice or snow or something on the cable. I saw no evidence of divine intervention, nor am I weeping from the traumatic memory as I write this. Regretfully, I didn't think to hire a lawyer.

The point: Things can go wrong when you're driving. All sorts of things. What happens if your engine seizes when you are in the middle of a crowded freeway? What happens if you are rounding a tight turn and a tire blows out? What happens if brake fluid leaks out while you're descending a steep hill? Any of those mishaps is probably more likely to happen than one of these Toyota recall issues.

Driving is not "safe," ever. In fact, it's one of the most dangerous things you do regularly. Whenever there is a plane crash or a disease outbreak or a shark attack or an underwear bomber, people often cite the number of annual auto fatalities as a comparison, so as to put the relative minor fatalities of a tragedy in perspective. And in that perspective, any problems that might have been caused by sticky accelerator pedals is tiny.

But why bother to dwell on that? It just frustrates the rational mind. It doesn't matter. We are not in the world of reason and rationality now. We have packed our bags and taken up long-term residence in the demon-haunted world of sentiment and greed. Good luck Toyota, travelling that world is sure to be a harrowing journey.

Oh, and there is at least one certain winner: Hyundai.