Monday, March 1, 2010

Deconstructing Toyota's Debacle

Day 13 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Update - March 20, 2014:  The United States has fined Toyota $1.2 billion for concealing safety defects in cars sold to Americans.

And people wonder why I'm so cynical.

Recently, I wrote about the problems Toyota has been having with acceleration issues in some of their most popular cars, and how Toyota-bashing has become American media’s current hobby.

Whatever subject I talk about, I try to present a fairly even voice of reason amid the brou-ha-ha. In this case, I chided the press and ambulance-chasing lawyers for meshing truth with hysteria. I gave Toyota the benefit of the doubt, but also suggested that their corporate response had been inadequate, particularly since this inquiry involves mortality statistics.

Of course, by now it has become apparent that Toyota has known far more than it’s admitted to have known. Facts continue to surface which show either a cavalier corporate deportment towards the public or a systemic culture of ethical apathy – or both, depending on who’s doing the critique.

In addition, suspicions abound that the Obama administration may be manipulating Toyota’s troubles for the benefit of Government Motors – I mean, General Motors. And anecdotes continue to surface about lawsuits and inquiries over acceleration-related wrecks for which little – if any – scientific study has been conducted.

You Mean They Haven't Already Done That?

Last week, Joe Barton, who happens to be my US House representative, called Toyota’s search for clues into its acceleration problems a “sham”. He was dumbfounded to learn that Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have never disassembled any Toyota vehicle involved in suspicious crashes to see if they can determine any physical flaws in them. A couple from Tennessee – whom Toyota called liars when they claimed their Lexus surged to 100 mph on I-40 – testified last Monday that their old luxury vehicle was still sitting in an impound yard.

Incredulous, Barton ordered that it be taken to the NHTSA’s facility in Ohio to be disassembled and inspected to see if any faulty mechanics or systems can be found. Why didn’t anybody else think of doing that?

Koua Fong Lee, a Hmong immigrant to Minnesota’s Twin Cities, is sitting in prison right now, convicted of manslaughter after his 1996 Camry plowed into the back of an Oldsmobile four years ago, killing three people. However, lawyers for both Lee and the victims’ families have filed motions for reopening the case after Toyota recently expanded its recall to include certain 1996 Camry models.

And wouldn't you know it: Lee’s old car still sits in a St. Paul police lot, nobody ever thinking to disassemble it for possible clues. Of course, during the trial in 2007, Toyota’s reputation was still so sterling, nobody considered the possibility that Lee was right, and that his Camry just surged ahead uncontrollably. If Lee gets a new trial, lawyers have already said that car is coming apart this time.

Now, I don’t mean any disrespect to Representative Barton, or to Lee's lawyers, but why did it take a politician from Texas to suggest the obvious – if innocent people have supposedly died in suspicious wrecks involving Toyota vehicles, why hasn’t anybody already taken them apart to find a root cause? Is that just something they do in TV crime dramas? Apparently in England, if they suspect something is defective or hidden in a vehicle, police mechanics take the car down to its frame looking for evidence. I guess I just assumed we were that logical here, too.

They Keep Diggin' Their Own Hole

And as for all the documentation purportedly showing how Toyota covered up data about safety defects, recall savings, and other apparently incriminating evidence, where have these documents been up until now? Did it take media pressure for them to see the light of day? What about Mr. Toyoda himself balking at making his obligatory appearance before the congressional subcommittee? Why would Toyota’s chief executive in North America say he’s unsure of whether the current recalls will fix all the problems, and then be countermanded by Toyoda, who said they would?

And have you heard that in New York State, Toyota has been quietly offering customers free loaner cars and expanded courtesy vehicle service while their Toyota's are being repaired? Customers in other states have either had to pay for - or go without - these features. Apparently, now that somebody found out about Toyota’s little Empire State secret, they're considering offering these services free across the country to prevent even more damage to its reputation.

Here I was, trying to give Toyota the benefit of the doubt as our national press was bending over backwards to vilify it, but now, it seems like Toyota was banking on skepticism from people like me to play its own games of deception. It’s still to be proven in a court of law, but Toyota appears to have ignored troubling in-house safety data. It appears Toyota has been fudging recall notices and gaming federal regulators in their favor. Reporters have also discovered a pattern of Toyota pursuing out-of-court damage settlements to prevent lawsuits from being put on the record - and therefore open to public scrutiny. Of course, Toyota has a legal right to do that, and maybe they legitimately believed the problems were isolated. In hindsight, however, lumped with all the other evidence, those settlements smell suspicious.

Granted, you still don’t see Camry’s plowing into Burger King’s every day, but with all of this stuff Toyota apparently knew about their acceleration issues, did they honestly think the problems would just go away? As more damaging evidence continued to emerge, why did Toyota think we Americans – the most litigious people on the planet – would just play along?

We’re still not at the Ford Pinto stage in this situation - but we're getting closer. It's not yet a national crisis, although the growing death count attributable to the debate is sobering. However, if right now, I was invited to ride with a friend who drives a Camry, I would go along with only the faintest of trepidation. Indeed, we should probably be more scared of idiot drivers than recalled Toyotas.

Ethics, Profits, and the Status Quo
The reason I’ve revisited this topic is that increasingly, the Toyota debacle illustrates a distinct disconnect between ethics and profitability. In his congressional testimony, Toyoda insinuated that his company grew faster than its ability to accommodate the morality of building safe vehicles. To be fair, Toyoda has only been chairman for about three years, and if the problems with vehicle safety have been as systemic in Toyota’s culture as Toyoda claims, that’s hardly his fault. (read Toyoda's comments to Congress here)

Yet, if as the press says, Toyota has breached ethics protocols for years in a hardly-subtle quest for profits, Toyoda's assertion that we can trust him since his name is on every car rings hollow. I understand that no vehicle is entirely safe; a 100%-safe car would probably be undriveable. What frustrates me is that Toyota - and to an extent, our own safety officials - have seemed so detached from the conversation about these problems.

Who knows what will happen if they strip these totaled cars, test all the electronics, and still find nothing wrong? Here again, if Toyota had already taken the initiative and been deconstructing totaled vehicles for answers, we might not even be discussing this situation today.

As it is, while we can put a man on the moon, apparently it still takes the media's hounding and lawyers lining up in courthouses before companies like Toyota take responsibility for product liability.

And consumers, who are supposed to be stakeholders in capitalism, still get left paying for it. You remember that Lexus SUV from Tennessee our government bought to disassemble and test? Who do you think paid for it?

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