Toyota’s image takes a beating in handling of sudden acceleration problem

posted on:
December 9, 2009

author:
KURT NILAND

Unintended acceleration problems and a lackluster response to them have created a public relations fiasco for Toyota, and the quandary seems only to worsen. In September, the automaker announced a record recall of 3.8 million vehicles — a number that quickly grew to encompass more than 4,260,000 as possible causes and solutions were studied.

Toyota says that floor mats in eight of its models can become unfastened and slide forward, jamming the gas pedal. Toyota also says that the design of its optional all-weather floor mats and mats that are improperly placed atop one another may trap the accelerator pedal and cause the vehicle to speed out of control.

Despite its focus on floor mats, Toyota decided to install a brake override system in three of its high-end models: the Avalon, Camry, and Lexus ES350. The system, which is standard fare in many German and American cars, will tell the engine to stop when the brakes and accelerator are applied simultaneously while traveling at a high rate of speed. However, because Toyota and the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been so focused on floor mats during the recall investigations, the brake override system was passed off as something of a gratuity for luxury car owners.

“NHTSA is particularly pleased that Toyota is taking this additional step.” The agency said in a statement.

Owners of one of the luxury models may also appreciate this “additional step” to ensure their safety. But why is Toyota taking this step if floor mats truly are the cause of the problem?

The question seems worth extra consideration in light of Toyota’s precarious financial health. By its own admission, Toyota said it was ill prepared for an economic crisis. On top of the world’s financial woes, years of ignored sudden acceleration complaints culminated into one of the largest product recalls in history.

In Octobber, President Akio Toyoda said that his company was a step away from “capitulation to irrelevance or death” and that it was currently “grasping for salvation” – not exactly the best time to take additional, unnecessary steps that will leave a few customers happy but leave many more wondering why their vehicle was excluded from the one fix that would solve any sudden acceleration problem, whether it’s caused by a floor mat or something else.

And then there is a Consumer Reports study that says, in the car world, unintended acceleration is a “very Toyota problem.” Toyotas are responsible for more than 40 percent of unintended acceleration reports filed with federal agencies.

Pulling numbers from the NHTSA’s safety complaints database, Consumer Reports focused on accident reports involving 2008 model year cars from all makers. Then, to weed out any opportunists, CR subtracted the incidents that were reported after the infamous crash of Mark Saylor and his family in a Lexus ES350 on August 28, 2009 – the accident that finally prompted the recall.

Out of 6,000 reports, 166 involved sudden, unintended acceleration. Forty-seven of the reports came from Toyota and another five from Lexus. In conclusion, CR found that Toyota accounted for 41 percent of unintended acceleration accidents even though its cars represent just 16 percent of the U.S. market.

Ford ranked second highest, with a 28 percent share of unintended acceleration reports, mostly involving the F-150 pickup. General Motors, which sells the most cars in the U.S., accounted for just 5 percent of the complaints. 

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