Toyota Dealers to Customers: It’s Not Me, It’s You

Toyota has never had any good choices in extricating itself from the Sudden Unintended Acceleration problem it has been in for a year and counting. (Except admit the problem, work diligently to resolve it, take your lumps and move on.) But as many a public relations expert has opined already, they have won themselves a place in the pantheon of business school case studies in the “What-not-to-Do” category.

The streak continues. We’ve noticed a dribbling of press releases from Toyota dealerships touting the NHTSA interpretation of the Toyota black box data as proof that there is nothing wrong with their products. These headlines and sub-heads left us gob-smacked:

“Fort Myers Toyota Announces Release of U.S. Study of Toyota Crashes; Fort Myers Toyota is pleased to report that a study done by U.S. Transportation Department officials’ points to the driver error in many of accidents involving Toyota vehicles.”

And

“Toyota Dealer in Georgia Verifies New Reports that Blame Driver Error for Crashes; Athens Toyota dealership, Heyward Allen Toyota, serving Atlanta Toyota drivers, has confirmed that a study done by U.S. Transportation Department officials points to the Toyota driver as the culprit for the crash.”

There are three problems here.

Numero Uno: Equating Toyota Event Data Recorder (EDR) data with incontrovertible evidence. As we have said many (sigh) times: any Toyota black box data comes with a big caveat from the automaker itself. Toyota has long argued in the courtroom and to the media that its EDR is a prototype tool, whose results have never been validated. Toyota is still making statements to this effect. All manufacturers know that EDR data is not infallible and its results must be read along with other physical evidence of the crash. For example, a recent EDR readout from a single-vehicle, run-off-the-road crash involving a Toyota Tundra showed that the driver was travelling at 177 mph. That’s faster than a Tundra can actually go.

Two: Even if we were to accept this data on its face – 60 percent showed no evidence of braking. What does that say about the causes of the other 40 percent of the crashes? What happens when you multiply those percentages obtained in the study of 58 incidents times the 37,900 complaints Toyota says it has received? That’s a whole lotta SUA that can’t be blamed on drivers.

And that brings us to the Big Three:

Don’t Blame the Customer. How do you sell cars to people while calling them jackasses who can’t drive a sedan properly? That might work for Toyota corporate, which deals with consumers through the disembodied voices at the other end of a toll-free number. Selling cars and maintaining customer loyalty is a full-contact sport. Free advice: Leave consumers with some dignity, and go with the classic: it’s not you, it’s me.

So what’s up with the dealerships pushing this line? Although the headlines were a little different, the bodies of the press releases were identical. This smells like SMART Team spirit to us, and any dealer who is thinking about taking the bait ought to think twice.

For one, many dealerships across this great country of ours have directly confronted Toyota and Lexus vehicles exhibiting unintended acceleration that cannot be explained by floor mats, driver error or sticky pedals. We have heard from consumers who have reported to SRS that long before the issue became a daily news staple, when they took their vehicle in for servicing after an SUA event, mechanics made remarks along the lines of: we’re seeing a lot of this. We’ve heard from consumers who’ve reported that the techs at the dealership observed the phenomenon themselves, or found fault codes, but told the customer it was the floor mat.

Second, dealerships may have their own legal claims against Toyota for lost business resulting from the automaker hiding defects and then failing to fix them properly.

Fort Myers Toyota: Are you really “pleased” to report that SUA complaints can be blamed on your customer base? Hey, Heyward Allen Toyota do you want kill your future compensation claim in its crib by agreeing to shovel Toyota-corporate’s shinola?

We’re just asking.

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