The Monitor's View

Toyota recalls: Thank Uncle Sam

Consistent pressure from US safety officials finally pushed Toyota into recalls and halting sales of potentially dangerous vehicles. 

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At a time when Americans have lost faith in government, it’s worth noting that it was US safety officials who pushed a reluctant Toyota to finally recall and stop selling millions of vehicles with a potential accelerator problem.

In 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told Toyota to recall certain vehicles because floor mats could entrap gas pedals. The auto giant agreed. Last fall, after a fatal crash near San Diego involving a Lexus and unintended acceleration, the safety agency told Toyota it expected a recall to address not only floor mats, but also pedal design. Toyota recalled 3.8 million vehicles.

In December, the acting head of the NHTSA flew to Japan to underscore that Toyota must find and report defects promptly. In January, after Toyota told the agency about a possible pedal “sticking” defect, agency officials met personally with the president of Toyota North America and other company representatives and demanded prompt action on sticky pedals. The company issued a recall and, after US urging, finally halted sales of eight models last week.

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US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will soon call Toyota President Akio Toyoda. “This is very serious,” Mr. LaHood said at a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday. “We’re going to keep the pressure on.” 

Indeed, the NHTSA – which is part of the Transportation Department – is now doing a background investigation on electromagnetic interference in computerized auto throttle systems as a possible cause for the accelerator problem. Not that it has found an electronic defect, but because it’s responding to questions and concerns.

The NHTSA is up for its own criticism in this, but the difference between the comparatively quick and persistent American response and the hesitant Japanese one is startling, and may speak to a cultural divide about dealing with corporate shame and the coverup of mistakes. 

In 2006, the Japanese government reprimanded Toyota, Japan’s biggest company, for an eight-year delay in issuing a vehicle recall and for inadequate monitoring of reports of defects in its cars.

This public scolding was a surprise. Just a few years earlier, the Japanese auto industry had been roiled by news that Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Japan’s No. 4 carmaker, had admitted to routinely covering up safety defects for nearly two decades. That admission, which led to dozens of recalls for its vehicles, pushed the company to near bankruptcy.

Toyota is slowly learning that it must quickly recall defective vehicles. It now says it’s looking into another potential problem involving more than 100 complaints about brakes in the new Prius. This may signal that the company has learned to respond to customers’ complaints and to create a culture of openness among its employees. It at least has stopped referring to recalls for major safety problems as “service campaigns.”

All automakers should make sure their workers feel comfortable reporting problems in vehicles. A car company whose employees cannot own up to their own mistakes or those of fellow workers is jeopardizing public safety. And that goes for both white-collar and blue-collar employees.

Of course, it is one thing to react quickly after the fact, it is another to act presciently beforehand.

At his breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, Secretary LaHood expressed deep concern that some automakers are turning out models that have so many “gadgets, bells, and whistles” on them that they distract people. This at a time when the department is trying to discourage distracted driving due to texting and cellphone use. He plans to talk to car manufacturers about this issue, which may eventually require regulation.

Keep the pressure on, Mr. Secretary.

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