Issue of the week: Massive recall tarnishes Toyota

Toyota received complaints about its car accelerators as far back as 2002. Last week, the company finally recalled millions of its vehicles around the world.

As far back as 2002, worried customers had complained to Toyota that their cars’ accelerators were getting stuck, said Bill Vlasic in The New York Times. But the company played down or dismissed the complaints until last August, when a Lexus (Toyota’s luxury brand) driven by an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer crashed at a highway intersection near San Diego. The driver had called 911 shortly before the crash, telling the operator that “our accelerator is stuck … there’s no brakes … hold on and pray … pray …” The car soon hit another car, shot through a fence, rolled over, and burst into flames. The driver and three members of his family were killed. Toyota intensified its inquiry into the problem following that accident, but it was not until last week that Toyota, “with prodding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” finally recalled millions of vehicles around the world to fix their accelerators.

Toyota’s conduct fits a longstanding pattern, said Ralph Varta­bedian and Ken Bensinger in the Los Angeles Times. In recent years, the company has repeatedly “delayed recalls, kept a tight lid on disclosure of potential problems, and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.” For example, the company had known “of a dangerous steering defect” in its 4Runner SUV for years before recalling the car in Japan, in 2004. A former Toyota lawyer has alleged that executives conspired to conceal damaging evidence of defects, and dozens of plaintiffs’ lawyers are contemplating product-liability suits.

Right now, Toyota’s most pressing problem is the recall, said Peter Wilkinson in CNN.com. Indeed, how the company handles that challenge will likely determine whether it retains its reputation for “quality and reliability.” The company says it has traced the problem to faulty mechanical linkages in the accelerator assembly, which it can fix with a steel reinforcing rod. If that diagnosis proves wrong, Toyota’s standing might never recover. Still, Toyota’s rivals shouldn’t gloat, said Jack Nerad, also in CNN.com. The recall is bad news for the whole industry, which is still reeling from a brutal 2009. Rather than buy another brand, many drivers might “just sit on their wallets until the smoke clears.”

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They could be sitting for a while, said Matt Hardigree in the

automotive blog Jalopnik.com. Several automotive and computer experts, including Apple co-founder and Toyota Prius owner Steve Wozniak, have found evidence that a hidden electronic problem could account for most of the sudden accelerations, which have been implicated in at least 815 accidents and 19 deaths. Both Toyota and the federal government deny there’s any “electronic glitch,” but if bad software, rather than bad parts, is the problem, Toyota’s woes could be just beginning.

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