Toyota’s Perfect Storm

Our brains are wired to fear threats that cause us dread—which is an actual term of art in the risk business. Dread represents all of our evolutionary fears, hopes, lessons, prejudices, and distortions wrapped up in one dark X factor.

In my book, I tried to condense a lot of risk research into one shorthand equation for dread: 

Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness

As I read about the Toyota story, about cars accelerating uncontrollably and Toyota executives watching it all in slow motion, I can’t help but notice that this is a perfect storm of dread. Toyota has a very big problem, if that wasn’t already obvious. In addition to the actual, literal problem of a small number of cars going haywire, there is the psychological problem—which may be the bigger one.

A brief status check:

*Uncontrollability: Off the charts.

The brain does not like things it cannot control (which is partly why we fear airplane crashes so much more than car crashes). The idea that your car might suddenly become uncontrollable is, well, scary.  To make matters worse, Toyota has not conveyed a consistent message about how to fix the problem—and regain control. The company started off blaming floor mats for the problem. Then, in January, Toyota conceded that there were two separate problems—floor mats, in some cases, and sticky pedals in others. Then there’s this, from an AP story today:

LaHood, in an interview with The Associated Press, defended his department’s handling of the Toyota investigation and said the Japanese automaker was “a little safety deaf” during its probe of the problem. The company was so resistant, LaHood said, that it took a trip from federal safety officials to Japan to “wake them up” to the seriousness of the pedal problems.

*Unfamiliarity: Medium to high.

Most of us are not familiar with how car acceleration works—particularly in modern, high-tech vehicles in which electronic systems now control many functions that used to be handled mechanically. Toyota denies that the electronics are at fault here, but critics of the company are not so confident.

*Imaginability: On the rise.

Thanks to 911 calls like this, in which an off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer asks the dispatcher to pray for him and his family as his Lexus screams towards oncoming cars, we can now imagine what it would feel like to be in this situation. Imagining a threat can make it feel more likely than it actually is.

*Suffering: Not good at all.

Another similarity to a plane crash: the imagined moment of reflection. We realize that with this kind of risk, there may be a period of time between when we realize we cannot slow down and when the car comes rolling (or crashing) to a stop. That is a scary concept. The brain is wired to avoid suffering, which explains why we fear cancer more than we fear heart attacks—which we assume will come on with less warning and less suffering.

*Scale of Destruction: Could be worse.

This is one area which Toyota can use to its advantage. So far, the chances of this happening remain pretty small. And Jim Lentz, the president of Toyota USA, stressed this point on FOX today:

This sticky pedal is very, very rare, and it comes on over time. So, it’s not something that one day you get in your car and you start to have a throttle that starts to stick. It may be slow to respond, to come back. Eventually, it may start to be a little bit sticky or a little bit rough.

But the fact that the company has had to expand the number of cars facing a recall makes the problem feel less contained than it probably is.

*Unfairness: So-So

People buy Toyotas because they are a sure thing. They are safe, reliable and easy to drive. The acceleration problem is a direct affront to all those values. So the risk feels more unfair than if, for example, this were a problem confined to, say, cherry red high-performance race cars.

For now, the recall affects the following cars, according to Toyota. :

  * 2005-2010 Avalon
  * 2009-2010 RAV4
  * 2007-2010 Camry
  * 2008-2010 Sequoia
  * 2009-2010 Corolla
  * 2005-2010 Tacoma
  * 2008-2010 Highlander
  * 2007-2010 Tundra
  * 2009-2010 Matrix
  * 2009-2010 VENZA
  * 2004-2009 Prius

If you’re a lucky owner, go here for more info. Usually, the more you know, the less you dread…