Toyota and Lexus Crashes

Questions for Mr. Toyoda

In the weeks since Toyota’s safety problems have become international news, Akio Toyoda, the company’s president, has apologized repeatedly.

When he testifies on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, he is expected to apologize again and, according to a prepared statement, admit that his company’s “priorities became confused” in its quest for growth over the last decade. It isn’t enough.

Mr. Toyoda owes consumers a complete explanation of why his company failed — for years — to fully respond to complaints about its cars’ sudden and uncontrolled acceleration, a problem that may have caused 34 deaths since 2001.

He must disclose full details on when the company first learned of the problem, why it waited so long to address it and why it believed that a series of minor and inexpensive fixes would be enough — even after complaints continued to pour in.

He also must explain when and what the company told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about these problems. Americans have good reason to fear that regulators failed to do their job.

Among the subpoenaed documents Toyota has given to Congress is a chilling presentation bragging about how the company secured “favorable recall outcomes” — including negotiating a deal with the federal safety agency in 2007 to recall only 55,000 optional floor mats that were supposedly causing unintended acceleration.

Two years later, in August 2009, a California highway patrol officer driving a Lexus with a different mat was killed in a crash. Only then did Toyota decide to recall another 4.3 million vehicles of various models to install “smart pedals” that would allow drivers to brake even if the gas pedal was pressed.

Earlier this year, after more complaints, Toyota recalled more than three million cars to fix a different problem with a pedal that stuck, leaving the throttle open.

In testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Tuesday, James Lentz III, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., grudgingly admitted that these recalls may not have entirely solved the problem and that there may be other instances of “mechanical, human or some other type of error.”

But, in his prepared testimony, he insisted that its electronic throttle is not at fault. Critics note that the number of cases of uncontrolled acceleration spiked after the system was introduced in 2001. And Toyota still has not performed a rigorous investigation into the electronic devices.

In a letter to Mr. Lentz, the committee’s chairman, Henry Waxman, and Bart Stupak, a subcommittee chairman, said that the study Toyota says proves the throttle isn’t the cause had a very small sample size and failed to test for real-world conditions.

Representatives Waxman and Stupak also have been highly critical of American regulators. In a letter to Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, they say that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s only investigation into the many complaints about Toyota, made in 2004, was “cursory” and “marred by highly questionable assumptions.”

If there is any good news, it is that the federal safety agency is now taking a much more aggressive stance. It pushed Toyota hard to recall vehicles. It also opened inquiries into how Toyota responded to complaints and whether it communicated problems to the safety agency in a timely manner. It has decided to look again into whether there may be a problem with the electronic throttle controls.

Consumers need to hear the answers to those questions soon, and they need to hear how the federal safety agency plans to change its procedures so it can’t be sweet-talked or flimflammed by the companies it is charged with overseeing.

Toyota has even more hard work ahead if it hopes to regain the confidence of drivers around the world. The first sign that it has the right priorities is to tell the full truth about how it went so badly wrong — and prove to consumers that this time it has really fixed the problem.

The New York Times

Share This Post