Toyota has finally acknowledged that it has a major safety problem with unintended acceleration. The sticking pedal has reared its head again, after a 4.3-million-vehicle recall last fall and after the floormat issue (which sounded like a coverup to many). Now with a 2.3-million-vehicle recall last week, Toyota isn’t really sure what the cause is, so they must halt sales and production of the most popular Toyota models. This is a rare and serious action for an automaker.
The story has gained wide circulation and comment, of course, in the business and automotive press. You can find good basic coverage here and here. The cars include: Camry (gas, not hybrid), Corolla, RAV4, Matrix, Avalon, Tundra, Highlander, and Sequoia. Dealers are freaking out, the stock is tanking, and the company is taking an enormous hit in public confidence. The NHTSA said Toyota is “legally bound” to stop selling cars in the U.S. it knows are defective. Wham-o.
Commentators have compared the company’s action to what Johnson & Johnson did in 1982 with the Tylenol scare. J&J pulled the product off store shelves—all of it, everywhere in the country—and the president of the company went on TV with effective, regular updates about what was being done, the speed of the recall, and risks to consumers. It was a classic case in damage control.
Toyota’s problem is not limited to a few bottles of poison-tainted painkiller, however. And it may not be limited to defective pedal assemblies, which the company was quick to attribute to one supplier. There are suggestions that the drive-by-wire system, used in almost all its vehicles, could be at fault. (The company says no.) These computer-driven throttle-relay systems are found in all new Toyota and Lexus cars. Think about that for a minute.
It will take time and engineering analysis to find out the cause of at least 19 people dying in accidents attributed to unintended acceleration. But why has it taken so long? That’s just one of many questions Toyota will have to answer. It will also take time to get 2 million replacement pedals made, after they determine the proper design. And who will get the parts first? Factories or dealers?
Meanwhile, the company’s reputation for quality and consumer confidence is bound to suffer. People will begin to wonder whether they should be driving these cars. Audi, faced with the unintended acceleration issue some years ago, tried to stonewall the problem—and almost drove the company to ruin. Let’s hope the new regime of Toyota management has learned from that. Japanese companies seem to be more sensitive to public opinion. Now Akio Toyoda (right), new president and grandson of the founder, has shown signs of concern about the company’s reputation.
He’s supposedly a reticent man, but a thoughtful one. We would urge him to lose his reticence and get out front with the media—immediately—and never forget what happened to Audi.
Do you think Toyota has handled the unintended acceleration problem well so far? They have indeed done a right thing by stopping production and sales. Can or should they do more?