An ex-automotive engineer's perspective on the Toyota recall

February 04, 2010

Ah for the good old days when "sudden acceleration syndrome" meant a 19 year old kid in his dad's 1967 Pontiac GTO with a 455 V8, 4-speed and a Saturday night of mischief ahead. Alas, times are different and our national attention once again turns to another stumbling automaker - this time the seemingly impervious juggernaut Toyota withers under the stunning specter of frightening allegations, an unprecedented recall and PR nightmare.

I wanted to blog for a bit about the reactions of an engineer to this situation but full disclosure - I'm an ex-automotive engineer having spent 12 formative years with General Motors' Saturn which hardly makes me dispassionate or unbiased. And while you might think that leaves me gloating with a sense of schadenfreude in truth I'm far more reserved - as seems to be all my friends who still work in the auto industry.

While there is plenty of mud to be appropriately hurled at Toyota many of us engineers are bracing ourselves for another round of public castigation, misinformation, naiveté and virtually comical pronouncements. Not to necessarily defend Toyota but some cover for their engineers… an automobile is by far and away the most sophisticated "consumer product" in our society. With no disrespect intended to iPhones and X-boxes, nothing even comes close to the degree of technical complexity, system integration and punishing operating environment seen in today's modern motor vehicles. The simple fact that my 74-year-old mother can slide confidently behind 2000 lbs of rolling sheet metal propelled by 185 horsepower and pull out in a freezing sleet is alternately a modern miracle and a testimony to the combined skill and collaborative ingenuity of over 100 years of incremental engineering prowess. Well, that or terrifying.

Nothing comes close to the degree of technical complexity, system integration and punishing operating environment seen in modern motor vehicles.

But as the degree of technical complexity and refinement have steadily ratcheted up, so have our expectations and the degree of blind trust we place on the engineers behind our cars. So while the general public may be perplexed by - or indignant over -Toyota's recent problems, most engineers I know are a bit more nuanced in their reactions. Perhaps a combination of technical curiosity and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

While the real story is still emerging, my instincts tell me Toyota has a real problem here. I believe there are significant and substantive safety defects in these systems and cars. While hindsight will quite possibly show it to be inadequate their response has been predictable, understandable and frankly perhaps the best that could be expected. We'll see. Why did this happen? It's just supposition but I feel this is situation a perfect storm of several trends sweeping the modern design world combined with some factors unique to Toyota. In my next post I'll break down my thoughts on what happened and perhaps a bit of why…