Toyota, Conspiracies, Six-Sigma, & Auto Engineers

As is well known but never documented, a water-powered carburetor was invented in the early 20th century.

As is well known but never documented, a water-powered carburetor was invented in the early 20th century. Maybe it was by an auto company. Or maybe an oil company. Whichever doesn’t matter, because both of them are equally nefarious. The carburetor in question was filed away in a warehouse somewhere like the one that contains the Lost Ark. Maybe on adjacent shelves.

While I am not so naïve as to think that all corporations are first and foremost good citizens—after all, not only did I see those Indiana Jones movies, but I saw Michael Clayton, too—I do think that by and large the people who work at them tend to be as good as any of us are. To be sure there are some exceptions—and they tend to be egregious ones. We have had more than enough examples of corporate malfeasance of late, particularly in the financial industry.

But we all love a good conspiracy. And we love it all the more so if we can get our two cents in (e.g., “Yes, I heard that they killed the guy who invented that carb so we wouldn’t reveal its secrets. I think he’s buried in the same place Jimmy Hoffa is. . . .”).

I started thinking about this in the context of what’s going on with Toyota.

Clearly, I don’t know whether there is something deeper and more sinister involved. I don’t know if there is a mechanical glitch or a software code problem. But I think that there are undoubtedly good faith efforts on behalf on the people at Toyota, just as there were when there have been other problems with other vehicle manufacturers, like Ford and the Firestone tire debacle.

Is it possible that mistakes were made? Absolutely. Even six-sigma means 3.4 opportunities for defects per million. And if your car or truck happens to be one of those 3, it is not good.


Since Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. president and CEO Jim Lentz’s testimony yesterday before the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce I’ve heard the sound bite of his saying that they’re not going to be able to solve every problem. Which—and let’s think six-sigma again—is true. The only One who can solve every problem probably doesn’t drive. But ooooooooooooooooooo that sounds so scary: they can’t fix everything.

Grow up. Cars are fast. Cars are complicated. Cars are dangerous. That’s just how it is, and even Congress can’t repeal the laws of physics.

Jim Lentz has said that his family members drive Toyotas. He drives a Toyota. Do you think that he would if he thought it would unduly endanger their lives?

The testimony of the woman who said that her Toyota-built product accelerated wildly even though she put both feet on the brake pedal was striking—and scary. As I drove to work today, I happened to check what would happen if I put both of my feet on the brake pedal of a non-Toyota-built car: and saw that the pedals are so close I would be hitting the gas at the same time. Check your pedals. And then imagine that you’re really scared. Is it possible? Maybe.

The global automotive engineering community consists of some of the smartest people on the planet. If there could be water carburetors, they’d invent them and we’d have them. If there could be cars with absolutely zero defects, we’d be driving them. If there are technical glitches and cover-ups, they’ll identify and reveal them. Of this I am confident.

The rest is politics, show business and gossip. When it comes to safety and security, we need a whole lot more than that.