The Trouble with Toyota

The recall has affected over eight million vehicles worldwide.

By Kyle Cheromcha

As the federal government continues its probe into the massive Toyota recall, one of the most important issues for investigators is the timeline of the situation. Why did it take the government almost seven years realize the full extent of the problems?

According to an article in last week’s Business Week, a Bloomberg News review of federal records dating back to 2004 shows that the company used former government regulators to diffuse at least four separate investigations into the problem of “unintended acceleration” in several models.

Christopher Tinto and Christopher Santucci both left the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to work for Toyota at different times, but both work in the company’s Washington office handling defects and recalls with the NHTSA. They worked with the agency on five of eight federal probes into the problem since 2003, four of which resulted in the government closing its investigation.

I am a Toyota owner, and although I love my car, I’m not sure if I would buy another one. Not because of the recalls, but because of the way the company handled itself in the wake of the recall, plus the emerging details about their prior knowledge of the problem.

For me, the face of Toyota isn’t the corporate division. It’s my local dealership, with its friendly mechanics and hokey commercials. Although it’s hard to reconcile that picture with the one presented by the press – Toyota as a company with widespread safety issues and uncooperative executives – the details presented in this article seem to reinforce that troubled image.

A safety recall doesn’t ruin a company’s reputation, but a potential cover-up does. It doesn’t imply malicious intent – just a willingness to sacrifice quality control in the name of expansion and profit, as Toyota President Akio Toyoda himself acknowledged in his Congressional hearings last week. And as the article briefly suggests, it’s that same kind of inside connection between the government and the financial sector that allowed the financial crisis to grow unchecked.

There is no evidence proving any improper conduct between Tinto and Santucci and the investigators, but the situation still suggests that Toyota was arrogant enough to think that it could go against industry ethics. No other major automaker employs former government workers in that capacity.

Near the end of the hearings, Akio Toyoda promised that he would completely reform their quality control regulations. That’s a good start, but it’s going to take a more fundamental change in the philosophy of the company to repair the damage to the Toyota name.

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