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Toyota: Smart Tech to Blame for Some Repeat Complaints

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Toyota: Smart Tech to Blame for Some Repeat Complaints

By Christie Schweinsberg

WardsAuto.com, Apr 8, 2010 8:30 AM

NEW YORK – A transmission that adapts to individual driving styles is to blame for many of the repeat complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, a top Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. official tells Ward’s.

Toyota has been installing a brake override system at the same time many of its models are at dealerships to receive fixes per two recalls, one for sticking accelerator pedals and another for gas pedals that could be caught on floor mats.

Re-flashing a vehicle’s engine control unit to add the brake override software will return the transmission’s electronics back to its factory settings, says Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div., and that has a few owners thinking something has gone wrong with their vehicle once they get it back from their dealer.

“Our (ECUs) have an intelligence factor in them that learns the way a customer drives,” Carter says in a recent interview here. “So if I have a heavy foot, and you have a light foot, the car will adjust over time to meet your driving style vs. mine.

“When dealers re-flash the ECU to put in the safe brake, what is also happening simultaneously is the vehicle goes back to factory settings.”

While the car may feel different, Carter says the transmission will re-learn the owner’s driving style in a “couple of weeks.”

About 100 complaints were lodged in the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.’s database from Toyota owners who received recall fixes but still were experiencing problems.

“That was an area we had to do a better job explaining to the consumer,” Carter says.

Rare in investigations of repeat complaints are two cases in which Toyota discovered the carpet was not properly reattached to the lower center stack, allowing it to interfere with the accelerator pedal.

Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div.

Reattaching the carpet is part of the fix specified under the pedal-entrapment recall. As part of that recall, Toyota service technicians shave down the accelerator pedal and remove carpet padding to increase the accelerator’s clearance by about 0.75 ins. (1.9 cm).

Carter attributes the two instances to “an unfortunate technician’s error,” but notes Toyota has repaired nearly 2 million vehicles under both recalls, as well as one involving braking in the Prius hybrid.

Carter says a smaller issue cropping up involves complaints about “subtle” changes in accelerator feel after reinforcement is added under the sticky-pedal recall.

“I don’t notice it,” he says. “I think most people don’t notice it. It’s subtle. If (owners complain), we’ll replace the pedal assembly.”

Kristen Tabar, general manager-electronics systems for Toyota Technical Center, believes intense media attention regarding the recalls has given Toyota owners a “heightened sensitivity.

“They’re paying more attention, so any change in how the car felt before and after (is noticeable).”

Asked if dealers need to do a better job explaining technology intricacies to Toyota owners, Carter says, “There’s always better.”

With that in mind, the auto maker has released what he calls “a consumer-friendly talk sheet” for service managers to use in explaining how the repairs will affect the adaptable transmission.

Toyota also is beefing up its consumer website, Toyota.com, to incorporate technical videos, including one starring Tabar, that explain features in greater detail than they are likely to get at the dealership.

“Even though our salespeople for the most part do wonderful deliveries, you can’t (describe) every feature – you’ll just overwhelm people,” Carter says of the increased “heavy-lifting” of Toyota.com.

Toyota is exploring contacting vehicle owners directly, via email for instance, with information about their car, although Carter notes some buyers don’t want to receive any communication from their vehicle’s manufacturer.

In the case of Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand, Tabar says models with the new Enform telematics system someday may be able to transmit instructional videos to the vehicle along with the text messages Lexus now sends.

Also under consideration is an expansion of Enform to Toyota-brand models. Currently, those vehicles offer only the Safety Connect functions of Enform, not its concierge-like services.

Last week, at the first meeting of Toyota’s Special Committee for Global Quality in Japan, the auto maker said it would expand application of its Japan-market G-Book telematics service to “convey vehicular self-diagnostic information to drivers.”

Toyota U.S. spokesman John Hanson says there is “strong consideration” being given to using telematics to connect with customers here, as well.

“One of the primary issues is how do we listen to the customer better, and maybe part of that is being able to listen to the car better too,” he says.

Hanson doesn’t know whether Toyota may add the capability of disabling a vehicle remotely, a feature of General Motors Co.’s OnStar telematics system.

Despite the distraction caused by the sudden-acceleration issue, Carter insists Toyota will not delay any vehicle introductions.

Both he and Hanson admit the fallout from the recalls is “not over,” and Toyota now is analyzing how media attention was allowed to snowball to such levels.

This week, NHTSA said it planned to fine Toyota $16.38 million for failing to disclose sooner its sticky-pedal problem. Toyota has until April 19 to challenge the fine but has not indicated if it will do so.



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