Toyota recall response: Is the company doing everything it can?

This week Toyota announces new safety measures. But another recall and news that its research firm altered documents requested in a government probe have some consumer advocates questioning whether the automaker is serious about safety.

Reed Saxon/AP
The sign at a Lexus dealership in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles Thursday, July 1. Toyota Motor Corp. announced its intent to recall some 138,000 Lexus sedans in the US with faulty engines amidst a marketing blitz about its safety standards.

Toyota Motor Corp. announced Thursday that it would expand its product quality field program in the US to cover four regional sales areas, including San Francisco and cities in Texas. The offices will be staffed by technical and engineering specialists and will enable the company to detect and analyze quality problems.

The announcement comes one day after the Japanese automaker said it would add four months to the amount of time it devotes to new vehicle development (currently 24 months) to allow for quality control, at a press event for US media in Japan. It also coincides with the company’s new advertising campaign, which guarantees consumers that Toyota is spending $1 million an hour on keeping them safe.

But along with the public relations blitz comes news of another Toyota recall – some 138,000 Lexus luxury sedans were recalled on Tuesday because a faulty valve spring in the vehicles’ engines could cause the cars to stop suddenly while they’re in motion. Globally, about 270,000 Toyota Lexus and Crown sedans were affected. (Visit the company's website to learn more about the most recent recall.)

The newest recall and other moves taken by Toyota in recent months have consumer safety advocates questioning if the automaker is serious about fixing safety problems after some 8.5 million vehicles were recalled in January for unintended sudden acceleration. That recall prompted the government to levy a $16.4 million fee on the company – the largest ever for an automaker.

“Their effort to install quality control offices won’t help resolve the defects in their cars today,” says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer-safety group co-founded by Ralph Nader and based in Washington, D.C. “The real measures of preventing defects in the first place is more adequate testing and design.”

Mr. Ditlow criticized the company’s new advertising campaign, saying the amount is what Toyota spends on research and development, not specifically on testing and safety. “We’d like to see them have a little more candor with consumers,” says Ditlow.

He and other consumer advocates, including Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen, have also criticized Toyota for hiring Exponent, an engineering consulting firm, to evaluate reports of unintended sudden acceleration.

“[Exponent] is primarily hired to defend companies in product liability suits,” says Ms. Claybrook. “They are not a credible source.”

On June 29, congressional investigators accused Exponent of altering documents requested for an inquiry of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems. Documents released at an Energy and Commerce hearing in May showed that Toyota’s law firm had hired Exponent to help it defend the company. The law firm no longer retains Exponent's services.

Toyota maintains that it has cooperated fully in the government’s investigation and has taken sweeping steps to address safety issues.

Roughly six months into the sticky accelerator recall, more than 80 percent of affected vehicles have been repaired, says Toyota spokesperson Brian Lyons, adding that dealers have taken a proactive approach to repairs, including driving to customers' homes to bring in the affected vehicles.

The company’s so-called ‘smart teams,’ which investigate vehicles when customers report problems after a recall repair, have found that none of the existing problems have really continued, Mr. Lyons says. The vehicles’ electronic throttle control system (which is being investigated by NASA and National Academy of Science engineers) is not to blame, he adds.

“In 3,600 evaluations … we have not found a single case that has had a problem with electronic throttle control that would lead to sudden acceleration,” says Lyons.

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