Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Winter of Toyota's Discontent

BATON ROUGE, La. --- A man who attempted to return his recalled
Toyota pickup truck to All Star Toyota on Airline Highway on Saturday
crashed into the dealership building when his allegedly faulty
accelerator stuck, the Baton Rouge Police Department reported.

These are trying times for Toyota.

The Japanese auto maker, the world’s largest, issued a recall in January affecting some 2.3 million vehicles, just months after a separate recall that affected nearly 4 million cars.

The problem: a defect that causes the throttle to stick open.

It’s not pleasant to contemplate the consequences of such a flaw. Many of us have heard the horrifying 911 tape of an off-duty California Highway Patrolman who was traveling with three members of his family when the car accelerated to 120 MPH and crashed, killing them all.

Equally as chilling is Toyota’s reaction. First it blamed the floor mats. Then it blamed pedal mechanisms and claimed it had a quick fix.Then the company declared a moratorium on sales. Now, many automotive experts are looking at the electronic throttle system as the culprit which, if true, would require major engineering fixes.

On top of that, the company’s showcase car, the Prius, has brake problems.

One corporate communication expert called it the worst-handled auto recall in history in terms of the consumer anxiety and the mixed messages that were being sent at the outset.

That’s because while many Toyota owners were wondering if their next ride could be their last, the company was retreating to the bunker.

More than 60 new cases of runaway Toyotas have been reported since the company said it had solved the problem with a massive recall of suspect floor mats and proposed changes to gas pedals, safety experts said.

In one dramatic incident, four people died in Southlake, Tex., when a 2008 Toyota sped off the road, crashed through a fence and landed upside down in a pond. The car's floor mats were found in the trunk of the car, where owners had been advised to put them as part of the recall.

If there’s such a thing as automotive marshall law, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came close to invoking it this week by recommending that millions of Toyota owners affected by a massive recall "stop driving." (LaHood later amended his remarks to say, “what I meant to say or what I thought I said was, if you own one of these cars or if you're in doubt, take it to the dealer and they're going to fix it."

The beneficiaries of all this are Ford and General Motors, who have seen their sales soar in January while Toyota’s were declining.

Which is ironic since Ford and GM are the New York Yankees of automotive recalls. Consider:

-Oct 13, 2009: Ford Motor Co. adds 4.5 million older-model vehicles to a long list of those recalled due to a defective cruise controlswitch that can cause fires, pushing Ford's total recall due to faulty switches to 14.3 million.

-March, 1996: Ford recalls more than 8 million 1988-1993 cars to replace defective ignition switches in what was the largest single U.S. recall at the time. The switches can produce electrical shorts,causing engine misfires that led to stalling, as well as and brake and steering failures. The problem is implicated in hundreds of vehicle fires, and as many as 11 deaths and 31 injuries.

- April,1993: The feds ask General Motors to recall 4.7 million 1973-1987 full-size pickup trucks with side-mounted fuel tanks.

-- September, 1987: Ford recalls 4.3 million 1986-1988 model cars, trucks and vans, including some of its most popular models. Ford says the recall follows 222 reports of engine fires caused by a failure of couplings used to connect fuel lines.

-- Feb. 1981: GM recalls 5.8 million 1978-1981 cars and light trucks for replacement of two bolts which could fail and send the vehicles out of control.

And, of course, the design of Ford’s Pinto allowed its fuel tank to be easily damaged in the event of a rear-end collision which sometimes resulted in deadly fires and explosions. When Ford became aware of the flaw, it decided it was cheaper to pay off lawsuits than to redesign the car.

If you’re looking for corporate responsibility or ethical business practices, the automotive industry is a lousy place to look.

It appears that an industry increasingly focused on high-tech engineering and alternative fuels still embraces an old and corrupt business model.

Toyota is traveling a well worn path that, unfortunately, seems to extent endlessly into the horizon.

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