Now It’s Electronic Throttles . . . and Brakes: Toyota in More Hot Water

Late yesterday, the New York Times reported that two Congressmen (Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) asked Toyota to provide documents proving their cars’ electronic throttle systems were not faulty—as the company has maintained. Put up or shut up, and do it by Friday!

More insult upon injury: Ray LaHood, Transportation secretary (right), said, “We’re not finished with Toyota yet,” regarding the electronic issue, and this morning advised people to stop driving affected Toyota cars and take them to a dealer. However, the Detroit News correctly pointed out that this

conflicts with previous advice from the government and from Toyota, which has said drivers can keep driving their recalled vehicles until they receive a recall notice inviting them to visit a dealer to get a fix.

The government is right to investigate the company’s assertions as well as the electronic throttle systems of all automakers, and the committee is right to be skeptical. Mr. LaHood was apparently advised to cool his intemperate remarks (the stock was plunging) and issued a “clarification” to encourage owners to contact their dealers. Some parts of this story still seem to be getting out of control.

One of these is the Wozniak-Prius-cruise-control-sudden-acceleration problem that we mentioned yesterday in Green Update. According to Dan Edmunds, head of automotive testing for Edmunds.com, the issue comes up on various cars, and you can simply tap the brakes or cancel the cruise control without further danger. Yes, there is a software glitch somewhere, but

we need to stop hyperventilating—there are enough real problems with Toyota’s accelerators (and, yes, potentially with electronic controls and software, although the company continues to deny that possibility).

Good advice, although the waters got muddied still further today with reports about bad braking behavior on the 2010 Prius. NHTSA has received over 100 complaints about driving in icy conditions or over bumps and potholes when braking is momentarily lost. Japan’s Ministry of Transportation has ordered Toyota to investigate at least 14 similar complaints. Some of this may be happening because of the Prius’s regenerative braking system.

Brakes on the Prius could be another looming disaster for the company. Think numbers and prestige: Let’s remember that the Prius is Japan’s best-selling car. It is also the best-selling gas hybrid in Europe and North America.

I don’t think we are witnessing the incipient collapse of a great company, but we are seeing big chinks opening in the armor.

The L.A. Times has been running a series of articles very critical of Toyota’s corporate behavior. In the latest, an ex-Toyota attorney asserts the firm has regularly hidden and destroyed evidence (crash tests, vehicle test reports, other documents) on safety issues. It’s no secret that this is a secretive company, but if these charges prove in any way true, the lid will be off Pandora’s box.

As Akio Toyoda is learning, the biggest mistake a very public company like this can make is to lose its credibility.

As always, we welcome your opinions and comments. As the Toyota crisis unfolds, what do you think will be the consequences in the car marketplace—short-term or long-term?

—jgoods

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1 Comment

  1. It’s amazing to witness what appears to be a major meltdown in quality by a company that has been built on quality. The stoic quality of Japanese businessmen sometimes works against them, and this seems to be the case here. While the quality problems are very serious, the most troubling aspect is the lack of response by Toyota. Some might call it cover up and stonewalling, exactly the type of behavior we’ve seen in the past among other automakers. In the past, Toyota was known for it’s absolute dedication to quality and safety, and it’s refusal to sell product until it was right.

    It’s becoming obvious to the public that Toyota has adopted the US automaker’s creed– “Just ship it and we’ll fix it later.” That’s very bad policy when it comes to vehicle control and safety systems like throttle and brakes. At the least, Toyota needs to completely rebuild their systems safety programs, especially software safety.

    Can Toyota recover it’s quality reputation? Perhaps, but they can’t advertise it away like they’re trying to do now.

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