What's behind Toyota's string of recalls?

Toyota’s recall Thursday of 2.3 million cars and trucks follows a spate of major recalls last year from the Japanese automaker. Cost-cutting and a push for efficiency may be contributing factors.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
A man looks around Toyota Motor's showroom in Tokyo, Friday. Toyota Motor Corp said on Thursday it will recall millions more vehicles in the United States, its second massive recall in four months, this time to fix potentially faulty accelerator pedals.

Toyota’s recall of 2.3 million cars and trucks is the latest in a string of recalls that could tarnish the Japanese automaker's reputation for safety.

Thursday’s announcement recalling several Toyota models because of a flawed gas pedal comes on the heels of one of the worst years for the automaker in terms of recalls. Toyota had nine major recalls in 2009, affecting about 4.9 million vehicles. According to a Detroit Free Press report, that’s the most number of vehicles affected by safety recalls of any automaker in a single year.

“People aren’t buying Toyotas because they’re sporty or sexy, they’re buying them because they’re practical and reliable,” says Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. “But by chipping away from that, [Toyota is] going to find itself losing customers quite quickly.”

What’s behind all the recalls? Cost-cutting and a push for efficiency may be two big reasons, says auto safety expert Byron Bloch.

In order to streamline design and production, car manufacturers sometimes share one unique component – say, a pedal accelerator – among many different vehicle models, says Mr. Bloch.

In order to be competitive, he says, a manufacturer might decide to use the components it already has for a sedan and make it work in an SUV, or a coupe, or a crossover. “Suddenly, what was designed for vehicle A is suddenly being used for vehicles B and C and J,” he adds.

Sharing components is a common practice in the auto industry, and perhaps becoming more so as the industry becomes more competitive and cost-conscious. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When a manufacturer creates a component to be shared across different vehicles, it puts “all [its] engineering behind one thing and makes it work really well,” says Consumer Reports’ Mr. Fisher. “But on the flip side, if you have one problem, it’s going to be everywhere.”

As Toyota works to fix the problem now affecting many of its vehicle models, it must also figure out how to undo the damage to its reputation.

To that end, the recall is a smart, preemptive move, says Fisher.

“The fact that they’re doing the recall shows they’re trying to nip the problem in the bud,” he says. The recall may hurt their public image, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt their safety rating, he adds. “If Toyota has a recall prior to a problem, that’s not necessarily going to count against them.”

Given Toyota’s long record and how it is currently handling the problem, the automaker will probably be able to salvage its image, experts say.

“The company has generally been one of the true leaders in vehicle safety and reliability,” Bloch says, adding that in this case, he thinks the company is responding to the issue. “They’re trying to get to bottom of it and correct it. I think they’re treating it seriously.”


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