Why did Lexus nav systems crash? Passive voice hides the answer.

Image: Albert Koval

Earlier this month,  owners of late-model Lexus vehicles found their navigation systems flailing. Lexus eventually apologized, but its statement is a classic example of how to use the passive voice to evade blame — or even a clear explanation.

According to Forbes, an unknown number of 2014-2016 Lexus vehicles experienced the glitch, which caused the center console display to continually restart itself. Imagine if you’re driving and your Lexus loses, not just GPS navigation, but the radio, air conditioning, USB charging, and everything else the console controls. (There’s no indication that the engine or brakes had problems.) Here’s a tweet that shows what it looks like.

It took a while, but Lexus finally tweeted a statement. You can also read the same text in the FAQ on the Lexus site. Here’s what they said (passive voice highlighted):

Errant data broadcast by our traffic and weather data service provider was not handled as expected by the microcomputer in the vehicle navigation head unit (center display) of 2014-16 Model Year Lexus vehicles.

In some situations, this issue can cause the head unit to restart repeatedly, affecting operation of the navigation system, audio and climate control features, and the hands-free mobile phone functions. The data suspected to be the source of the error was corrected Tuesday, June 7th.

The correction is a forced reset and clearing of the errant data from the system.

Lexus owners experiencing these issues should visit their dealer for a complimentary system reset and a confirmation of the system. Until then, owners of affected vehicles should exercise additional caution when driving. We regret any inconvenience to our customers.

What’s dumb about this statement

If you are a Lexus owner, how does this statement make you feel? It basically says, “Due to unexpected misfortune, something bad happened to you. Sorry.” That’s classic passive voice evasion. Let’s look at all the ways this short statement hides responsibility.

  • Who’s fault is it? Lexus is responsible for the design of its information system. It’s also responsible for the “data broadcast by our traffic and weather data service provider” — a provider it supplies as part of the system. It’s responsible for the whole experience. Lexus shipped a system that crashes when it gets bad data, but instead it blames “errant data,” as if that’s some sort of unavoidable weather condition.
  • Who fixed it? The data “was corrected” — but does that fix the problem?
  • If you mess up a customer’s car, you should be a little kinder. A “please” would go nicely with “owners experiencing these issues should visit their dealer.”

If you’ve screwed over customers, your first step should be to solve the problem and apologize, not to evade the blame. They’re going to blame you anyway, so own up to it.

A better apology for Lexus

The Lexus statement should start with the problem and solution, and only then accept the blame. Notice how using “we” and “you” makes this statement much more direct and sincere.

If you own a 2014-2016 Lexus, you might be seeing repeated restarts of the unit that controls your center display, including the navigation system, audio and climate control features, and the hands-free mobile phone operation.

Please bring your vehicle to your local Lexus dealer, where we’ll reset the system and fix the problem. Until you get this fixed; please don’t let the system resets distract you while driving.

It’s our fault. The service that provides the traffic and weather data broadcast some bad information that crashed the system. We should have designed the system well enough that bad data wouldn’t cause a problem like this. We apologize to Lexus owners, who deserve better quality than this.

Complex systems lead to finger-pointing, as any computer owner knows. And cars are now complex systems. But in this case, the blame belongs to Lexus, regardless of who built the system and broadcast the data. Look for lots more crashes — and lots more evasions — as this level of complexity invades everything from our TV sets to our thermostats.

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  1. Josh,
    While I agree with most of your blog, I believe companies like Lexus issue statements with passive voice to make it easier on the customer. It still doesn’t make it right. While I agree with owning up to the problem, I don’t think you will ever see a company, such as Lexus, issue a complete mea culpa like the one your wrote.

    1. Parsing passive voice doesn’t make it easier on the reader. It purportedly makes it easier on the company making the statement. Except that it doesn’t work.

      It’s just an obsolete habit.

    1. Curtis, this is a good question.

      This may be how the habit started, but I don’t think it holds much promise as a legal strategy. Whether you’re Chipotle with bad food or Lexus with a software glitch, you’re responsible for what happens. Stating that “it happened” in the passive voice doesn’t insulate you from liability.

      I think it’s just a reflex — when you’re going to get punched in the face, you flinch.

  2. I suggest this final paragraph is more likely to be used by Lexus:

    A broadcast by the traffic-and-weather-data system crashed the system. We apologize to Lexus owners who are effected by this.