Posted by: David Welch on February 24, 2011
When NASA released the results of a 10-month study on Toyota vehicles on Feb. 8 concluding that the automaker’s cars did not have an electronics problem that caused unintended acceleration, one of Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s columnists said the media owed the company an apology. There is no ghost in the machine and the intense media coverage caused a frenzy, Bloomberg BusinessWeek columnist Ed Wallace wrote. I know Ed personally and have tremendous respect for him. But I must part ways on this issue.
Toyota may not have had electronic throttle issues. But certainly the company had plenty of other problems. Just today, Toyota announced its biggest recall in a year. The Japanese auto giant recalled 2.17 million vehicles because of carpet and floor mat flaws that could jam gas pedals. Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles globally since November 2009, many of them related to unintended acceleration claims. Of those actions, 5.3 million vehicles were recalled to fix floor mat problems. Some of the cars were recalled because of a sticking accelerator pedal. It may not have been electronics, but there were problems.
Toyota has had other investigations and recalls not related to unintended acceleration. Last week, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration opened an investigation into the 2006 Highlander hybrid amid claims that the SUV stalls frequently. In January, Toyota voluntarily recalled 1.7 million vehicles for potential defects in fuel pipes and pumps, Bloomberg reported. On Jan. 10, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda told reporters that the recalls have inflicted “big damage” on the company, but he maintained that its cars are safe, Bloomberg reported at the time.
Back to the apology. While it’s clear that there is no mystery magnetic glitch in Toyota’s cars and that they are as safe as anyone else’s vehicles, forget the apology. First of all, investigations are news. So long as the media reports the conclusion, it’s in the public’s interest to know what’s happening. Second, Toyota’s lost its once-astute focus on quality. Rapid expansion of its model lines and sprawling archipelago of factories has made it difficult to mind every detail, which was a principal tenet of the company.
Consumer Reports has found a decline in the quality of interior finishes in Toyotas for the past three or four years, David Champion, the magazine’s director of automotive testing, told Bloomberg for a Jan. 12 story. The company whose customers once relied on Toyota for bullet-proof quality and reliability suddenly suffered a rash of problems. In fairness to my old pal Ed, some media reports accepted the unintended acceleration claims as gospel. But that alone does not exonerate Toyota. Sorry Ed, but it’s the customers - not Toyota - who deserve the apology. Toyota’s executives have apologized, and justifiably so.