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Toyota recall: As firms go global, so do their glitches

Toyota's mounting recall woes show the downside of worldwide supply chains.

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The fallout from the recall represents a huge loss of face for Toyota, which became the world's biggest automaker by stressing the importance of quality and safety.

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Toyota has repeatedly referred to any sudden-acceleration problems as "rare" occurrences, a point disputed by Safety Research & Strategies, an advocacy group based in Rehoboth, Mass. Safety Research counts 2,262 unintended acceleration incidents from 1999 to 2010, leading to 341 injuries and 19 fatalities. Many of those occurred long before CTS became a Toyota supplier in 2005.

Despite these mounting reports and small electronics and other fixes dating back to 2002, Toyota did not acknowledge it had a widespread problem until last year, when it pointed to loose floor mats getting jammed under the accelerator. In November 2009, it issued a recall to replace the mats. The automaker says it first encountered a sticky-accelerator problem in March 2007 when owners of its Tundra truck began complaining that the accelerator was rough and slow to return to the idle position. Toyota traced that problem to a material in the pedal assembly, called PA46, that could absorb moisture and swell, according to documents Toyota filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The following year, Toyota switched to another material, called PPS, and concluded that the problem affected drivability, not safety.

Sticky accelerators popped up in Europe

In December 2008, Toyota began getting complaints from Aygo and Yaris drivers in Europe about sticky accelerators. This time it was the PPS material that seemed to be swelling, predominantly in right-hand-drive cars without air conditioning. Starting in August 2009, Toyota lengthened a part of the mechanism and changed the material again for all its European-made cars using that mechanism.

In October 2009, Toyota says it began getting reports of sticky accelerators in North America in pedal assemblies using PPS. Those reports led to January's recall of models using the CTS part.

Among the many questions now swirling around the company is why Toyota ignored customer complaints for so long before issuing recalls to address a safety issue. Also, if Toyota had a problem with sticky accelerators in Europe as early as December 2008, why did it wait until the following October before investigating the problem in the United States? And why fix the problem in new vehicles on the assembly line but not on cars already on the street? Toyota did not respond to requests for comment.

"Corporate ethics are to do the least you can so you're not spending time, money, and effort on vehicles you've already sold," says Byron Bloch, an independent automotive safety expert. "There has to be some combination of external pressures – like exposure in the media or public outrage [for a manufacturer to change practices]. If it's a dormant, quiet issue then the manufacturer can opt to deal with it on a one-by-one basis. They could blame it on bad gas, customer misuse, or claim it's so rare they've never heard about it before."

Sudden-acceleration problems are especially hard to track down. "The biggest challenge is that what consumers report is their perception. I've done it myself – I was driving and … accidentally, thinking I was putting my foot on the brake, put it on the gas pedal," says Bob Bennett, president of Lean Consulting Associates and a former group vice president for Toyota in the US. "People sometimes don't realize what they did."