Did overconfident executives, a zealous media or vindictive regulators turn a small safety problem into a massive scandal for the automaker?
On February 25, 2011, Toyota announced a recall of another 2.2 million vehicles for pedal entrapment, seemingly bringing us full circle from its earlier 3.8 million recall in October 2009 for related problems. Both were designed to address unintended acceleration. Since November 2009 through February 2011, Automotive News, the U.S. auto industry trade journal, estimates that some 20.5 million Toyota vehicles have been recalled worldwide, of which North America accounts for 14.5 million. These recalls involved huge financial and reputational costs.
Are Toyota's quality problems of their own making? Or is this largely a media created and driven phenomenon? Did government regulators succumb to public and political pressures?
Let's start with how events unfolded. First, there was the just mentioned 3.8 million vehicle recall for pedal entrapment from unsecured or stacked floor mats on Oct. 5, 2009. This was followed by a January 21, 2010 recall for 2.3 vehicles for the "sticky gas pedal" problem. Both recalls were seen by the public and media as addressing unintended acceleration. Soon after came an expanded recall of 1.1 million vehicles on January 27th for the pedal entrapment problem. All told, there were initially a little over 7 million vehicles recalled for these two problems. On February 8th, Toyota announced recalls of tens of thousands of 2010 Prius and Lexus hybrids to address braking problems, this one caused by a software error.
Much Ado About Nothing?
How serious were these problems? Operationally, we can say as of February 8, 2010, Toyota had a modest three problems in the U.S. Moreover, a recently released NASA study, commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), found no problem with Toyota's electronic throttle control system, which appears to leave "pedal misapplication" as the most identifiable source of unintended acceleration, though they could not estimate its frequency. It is also now clearer that reported cases of unintended acceleration are exceedingly rare events. On average, according to NASA, the reporting of these events is about 1/100,000 vehicles a year or 1 in 1.4 billion miles driven.