Friday 6 December 2019

Kevin Myers: Toyota didn't suddenly start connecting the foot brake pedal to the engine accelerator

Kevin Myers

EVERY schoolboy could, once upon a time, solemnly reassure you that Catherine the Great of Russia died in the connubial embrace of her Great Dane, with whom or which -- I am unsure of the grammar of such relationships -- she was sexually besotted.

The fact that this story was a fiction got up by French republican propagandists was irrelevant. You can have the story of an extraordinary woman who transformed Russia for the better and who had normal appetites, or you can have an alternative tale of a depraved old monster who died having sex with her dog: which story does mythology prefer?

Toyota knows the answer to this. Let's get this straight. Toyota makes the best and safest cars in the world. It has done so for generations. It is the world's biggest car maker because of these simple truths. And a couple of years ago it did not suddenly start connecting the foot brake pedal to the eng-ine accelerator.

Nor did its assembly-lines begin to insert gremlins into the computer software which would turn an amiable Toyota Prius into a ranting Toyota Hitler, one that charges off for Poland at 98 mph, from its placid home in the San Fernando Valley, Ca.

Simply, Toyota is a victim of an internet version of the Catherine myth. As Walter Olson points out in the latest issue of the American 'National Revue', the Toyota scare is almost entirely fantasy.

Virtually all the drivers of cars that got out of control were pensioners. So, what is this software that the diabolical Japanese installed in their cars? It's apparently so smart that it even knows the age of its drivers. If they are around 30, it behaves itself.

But if they've hit the three-score mark, why, it will metamorphose into a monster with a grudge against oldies. The moment they try to brake, it will accelerate the car to warp speed and, cackling manically, it will charge across the Southern California desert, pausing perhaps only to commit a schoolyard massacre in Palm Springs.

One favourite story -- that flooded across the internet, like the North Sea into the Netherlands after an oil tanker rammed the Schelde-seawall -- concerned a driver in California named Jim Sikes.

He dialled 911 from his Toyota and reported that the car was out of control, he was cruising at 96 mph, and he didn't know how to stop: help! Surrounded by police cars, he was ushered to an uphill gradient and told to turn off his engine; gravity did the rest.

This story made instant headlines across the world, perhaps because it appeals to some inner fear that we all nurture, of being enslaved by a machine.

As it happened, the story was rapidly analysed and ridiculed by local journalists, who discovered that the hapless Sikes had a questionable financial record, and has since been frantically trying to blag his way on to television chat shows. This part of the story, however, didn't make it into world headlines, which are still obsessing about cars that kidnap their owners, rather like HAL, the runaway computer in '2001: A Space Odyssey'.

Richard Schmidt, is professor of psychology in the University of California, Los Angeles (often the last building Toyota drivers see as they are being abducted by aliens). Last week he wrote in 'The New York Times' that he had investigated the last wave of "unintended accelerations" -- by Audis -- in the 1980s. He found these were invariably caused by driver error, always in automatics, and usually when the drivers were sitting in unusual positions, unaligned with the pedals. The drivers then blamed the car after they had accelerated out of control, and crashed into a wall, or slain an entire bus queue. Professor Schmidt simply thinks that the foot was on the wrong pedal.

THE HAL cars of the 1980s were German. The HAL cars of 2010 were Japanese. OK, it's a long shot, and maybe seems even a little pretentious, but in 1986, American technological self-belief was shattered by the space-shuttle disaster. Moreover, that year both Honda and Toyota established their very first car plants in the US.

And now more recently, and again for the first time in US history, two major US car manufactur-ers, GM and Chrysler, have been bailed out by the federal government. Might some strange desire to find fault with a convenient foreign car maker in compensation for these national technological humiliations not have found a sub-conscious expression in the collective US imagination?

No doubt the usual parasitic suspects of litigants and lawyers have played a part, but these are ever-present in American (and indeed Irish) life: only when there is a serious fault line in American self-confidence could such silly theories as the runaway Toyota have gained credibility.

After all, was the original UFO hysteria not an offshoot of the emerging threat from the USSR in the late 1940s?

So now is the time to buy Toyota, bully a salesman and get the bargain of a lifetime. And better still, if your wife's private eye tracks you down to Las Vegas and finds you romping with a couple of tasty Estonian blondes, you can always blame the Japanese car for kidnapping you. And then of course you sue Toyota. Why not? Everyone else is.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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