Who Was Really at Fault for the Toyota Recalls?

Did Washington Punish Toyota to Help U.S. Automakers?

Finally, what about the charge that overzealous regulators lie behind Toyota's problems? This is the tack taken by some who charge that NHTSA succumbed to domestic political pressures to be tough on Toyota. Others, like many in the Japanese media, lean towards conspiracy theory with the claim that the purpose of the recalls was to help "Government Motors," at the expense of Toyota. Even the venerable Asahi News, in a recent editorial, hints at this explanation. These critiques gained further currency with the publication of the January 2011 findings of NASA that they found no evidence that Toyota's electronic throttle control systems were at fault for unintended acceleration. Moreover, NHTSA confirmed only two deadly crashes, the Saylor crash and one more, as a result of pedal entrapment and none for the sticky gas pedal problem. This being the case, the critics argue, there was no justification for the recalls.

Hindsight, indeed, provides incredible clarity of thought. In the period from October 2009 through February 2010, there was utter confusion. Jeremy Awl, Chief Executive of Edmonds.com wrote in the Washington Post on March 16, 2010: "While we have heard much recently about smart pedals, floor mats and sticky throttles, it has not been made clear what is behind the incidents of sudden acceleration." James Lenz III, President of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., testified in congressional hearings in late February, that its engineers had not found its electronic systems to be a factor in unintended acceleration and Toyota's were safe to drive. At the same time, he stated that Toyota's recall might "not totally" solve the problem of sudden unintended acceleration in some of its vehicles. This hardly inspired confidence. Toyota first claimed that pedal entrapment was the cause of unintended acceleration, then, more than three months later, added sticky gas pedals which "in rare instances mechanically stick in a partially depressed position or return slowly to the idle position." Its evolving position further led the public to doubt their judgment. Clearly, they were still in a problem solving phase and couldn't entirely clarify matters. During the period from October 2009 through March 2010, many Toyota owners were at a loss of what to do or think.

The Saylor crash convinced NHTSA that pedal entrapment needed better remedies and this led to the first Oct. 5th recall for pedal entrapment. NHTSA seemed convinced that pedal entrapment was the primary cause and this explanation initially received play in San Diego newspapers. The Los Angeles Times, however, criticized NHTSA for not pursuing alleged electronic causes of the problem. The Times discussed the details supporting pedal entrapment as the cause on Oct. 25, 2009 but stated that NHTSA "draws no conclusions about the causes of the Aug 28 accident." This interpretation left it wide open for them and others to speculate on additional causes. Lawyers for plaintiffs charging faults in Toyota electronic controls fueled the speculation. Most of the national press ignored or treated lightly the pedal entrapment explanation of the Saylor accident, so fixed were they on the possible electronic causes. Widespread diffusion of the NHTSA reason for the October recalls might have quieted a great deal of the public hysteria. Ray Lahood, the secretary of transportation, added to public concerns with his statement on February 3, 2010 that Toyota owners should stop driving their cars and take them into dealerships. Despite his almost immediate clarification, damage was done. There is no evidence that this statement, however, was anything more than an ill-advised offhand remark. For those critics who see it as a smoking gun proving government conspiracy, their standard of evidence is low indeed.

All this was occurring at a time when every day seemed to bring another report of a driver with a terrifying runaway experience. This publicity spurred a flood of further complaints of unintended acceleration. NHTSA received some 9,700 customer complaints regarding unintended acceleration for vehicle model years: 2000 to 2010. Toyota accounted for some 3,100 of them well above what would be expected by their market share. Of the Toyota total, 2,200 (71%) came after the first recall for pedal entrapment in Oct. 2009. According to NHTSA, after the initial Oct. 2009 recall, the publicity that ensued "was the major contributor to the timing and volume of complaints." In late 2009 and early 2010, this spike in customer complaints obscured for the public what was only later to be fully realized, that unintended acceleration was a low-probability event. But at the time, it is easy to see how NHTSA officials concluded that waiting for more data would be an irresponsible decision, possibly endangering more lives. The number of deaths caused by a safety problem is only one of the criteria NHTSA uses for pursuing a recall. In the end, given the confusion and uncertainty that prevailed, the recalls can be seen as a prudent decision. It wasn't until the publication of the NASA report in early 2011 that the mystery was considered solved.

Presented by

Robert E. Cole is professor emeritus at the Haas School of Business and the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting researcher at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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