Car Guy

How Smart Is Today’s Toyota Driver?

Perhaps Driver's Ed should be teaching its charges what to do if the accelerator gets stuck.

By 2.10.10

A couple of thoughts about the ongoing (and metastasizing) Toyota Debacle....

First, it reveals how little the average person knows about cars these days -- and thus, how to deal with problems when they come up.

The first is the result, ironically enough, of the near-perfection of modern cars. We've become used to vehicles that just work -- like magic, almost. It might be -10 degrees outside (or 110 degrees) but the thing will start right up, not spit or stall or balk -- or overheat or cause any problems whatsoever (usually). It's taken for granted the car will get you there, every time.

And it almost always does.

That's not how it was before the mid-'80s. In those Dark Days, cars were recalcitrant and balky. Often, you had to coax them to start -- and do the machine-equivalent of hold its hand sometimes, until it was running reasonably well enough to risk actually driving it somewhere. Overheating and stalling out were common, everyday problems.

Thus, more people knew how to deal with such problems because they had no other choice. When stuck by the side of the road, it's motivating to pop open the hood and see whether you can pull on something (or kick it) to get going again.

Also in the Dark Days, many more people performed basic maintenance such as tune-ups themselves -- chiefly, because they could. The cars were more or less simple and the tools pretty basic. That's all gone now, of course. Modern cars are computer-controlled Whatzitz made of Unobtainium whose workings are utterly inscrutable and completely bewildering. So we hand them off to the Pros -- who work their magic and present us with the bill.

This usually works out OK, too -- except more and more of us are now utterly dependent on the Pros and incapable of dealing with situations when they do develop.

Unwanted acceleration. You are driving along and notice the gas pedal (or throttle cable) is sticking. My generation -- Generation X -- dealt with this almost routinely. I had a '74 VW with a cable that ran through a rusty tube, which sometimes made the cable jam and the car surge forward. No big deal. A quick shift into neutral (to disconnect the revving engine from the driven wheels) then kill the ignition (to avoid over-revving the engine), on the brakes (to slow the car) and gimp it to the side of the road, then get out and fix whatever needed fixing.

Anyone over 40 today knows this drill. But many younger people have no clue because they never had to deal with such a situation themselves and more crucially, were never told what to do if such a situation did develop.

Driver "education" is almost entirely about propagandizing new drivers to consider even thinking about driving faster than any posted speed limit anywhere, anytime the Primal Evil -- and to never take the initiative. The law is the law -- even if following it to the letter ends up getting you into a wreck. (For example: You must always come to a complete stop at a Stop sign -- even if it is a driving blizzard and the Stop sign is at the very top of a snow-slicked hill and stopping completely will almost certainly mean your car will roll backwards down the hill -- and into whatever happens to be behind you.)

The fallout of this is a whole generation of people whose instinctive reaction to unintended acceleration is to scream and enjoy the ride.

In the case of Toyota this is just what's happened. Driver notices the pedal's stuck and the car is surging forward. Driver plays Frogger in traffic -- or drives through a plate glass window and into a shopping mall. Anything -- except, put the car in neutral, shut off the engine and coast to the side of the road.

With a modern car, you don't even have to kill the engine to avoid grenading it from over-revving. All modern cars have electronic rev controllers that prevent this. So one step is eliminated -- and you still have power steering and brakes.

Nothing could be simpler. But it's apparently beyond the ken of the latter-day American motorist.

I suspect Toyota will be crucified. Possibly, the company deserves it. Then again, so do we. Surely, a driver has some responsibility to know a few basic things about the workings of his vehicle -- and about what To Do in the event something goes wrong?

Any of you like the "Star Trek" series?

There's an episode ("Next Generation," with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard) where the Enterprise comes across a race of beings, the Pakleds, who are ignorant of the workings of their own starship -- which is stranded in space because a simple but critical component failed. The Enterprise sends over its chief engineer to find and fix the trouble and the Pakleds, in awe of his knowledge and acutely aware of their own lack thereof ("we are not smart... he is smart!" is their mantra), kidnap the engineer, hoping he will keep the starship they don't understand running.

Maybe that's what we need to do. Because let's face it, we are not smart, either.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.