Toyota's chief quality officer in North America is voicing a delicate and potentially dangerous argument as the automaker tries to repair its safety reputation: Some reports of unintended acceleration are the result of owner misunderstanding, not a mechanical problem.
Steve St. Angelo thinks some Toyota owners simply may be unfamiliar with their car's features. He pointed out that Toyota's radar cruise control system automatically slows down the vehicle if another car comes too close. But when a gap opens up again, the car automatically returns to its previous speed. The resulting speed-up could be confused with unintended acceleration, he said.
"We're realizing that we haven't done a good job of educating our customers about our cars," said St. Angelo, a top North American manufacturing executive who was tapped in March to head the U.S. quality task force. "We must do a better job of educating them about the features."
The argument bears an eerie resemblance to how Audi executives reacted in 1986 when the Audi 5000 was the subject of claims of unintended acceleration. Company execs blamed driver error. Indeed, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation eventually corroborated Audi's contention. But insulted and fearful consumers avoided the Audi brand over the next 15 years.
A Toyota spokesman said St. Angelo's point is different.
"We're not saying our customers are at fault here," said Rick Hesterberg, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, where St. Angelo is also president. "We're saying we're the ones at fault. We haven't done enough to educate customers. This is on us."