Toyota Unintended Acceleration Scandal Update – 255 Days Later

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On Friday, August 28th, 2009, Mark Saylor and his family died in a fiery wreck, the victim of unsecured and over-sized floormats in the Lexus ES they were borrowing from a local dealership. Saylor’s story was compelling because he was a California Highway Patrol officer, and because of a panicked 911 call recording Saylor’s last moments where Saylor said that his throttle was stuck.

Saylor crash photo

The crash that lead to an international scandal. Image copyright NBCSandDiego.com.

The death of Sayler and his family gained national media coverage, eventually growing into a full scandal. Groundless accusations of malfunctioning electronic throttles combined with greedy and inept Toyota execs combined to tarnish the reputation of Toyota. In the 255 days since Saylor’s crash, the following has occurred.

Toyota has…

  • mis-managed negative publicity
  • recalled more than 6 million vehicles
  • admitted to “negotiating” away a safety recall to try and save money
  • admitted to design problems with pedal size and shape, floormats, and accelerator pedals that stick
  • had 327 state and federal lawsuits filed (many of which have been consolidated into a class-action)
  • created a new safety “A-Team” ready to respond within 24 hours of any unintended acceleration claim
  • formed a new “quality division” (link) that will be in charge of improving quality across Toyota’s entire product line
  • paid a $16.4 million federal fine without admitting any wrongdoing
  • manufactured 150 special event data recorder “readers” that can retrieve crash data from a wrecked vehicle
  • embraced aggressive vehicle incentives and experienced a USA vehicle sales increase of about 12% in the first 4 months of 2010

Is Toyota worse off today than they were 255 days ago? Yes and no. On one hand, Toyota’s reputation has suffered. Ford and Hyundai have gained market share at Toyota’s expense, and Toyota now faces a much more difficult marketplace. On the other hand, this scandal has brought Toyota’s executives back to reality. No longer can Toyota skate by on their reputation – they MUST build cars that are better and smarter than their competitors in order to be successful.

While it can be argued that this scandal might ultimately make Toyota stronger, it’s a near certainty that this scandal will make the National Higway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) stronger. Congress seems set to approve new vehicle safety legislation that will:

  • Double the size of NHTSA
  • Require brake-to-idle failsafe mechanisms in all vehicles (learn more about brake-to-idle failsafe a.k.a. smart throttles)
  • Require crash data recorders in all vehicles that would will record 60 seconds of data before a crash and 15 seconds afterwords
  • Allow NHTSA to fine automakers more than $16.4 million, the current legal limit
  • Give NHTSA more power. They’ll be able to force recalls, issue stop sale orders, and play hardball with big automakers in a way that simply wasn’t possible prior to this scandal.

NHTSA, Ford, and Hyundai seem to be the biggest winners in this scandal, while consumers who might have suffered as a result of Toyota’s design flaws are obviously the losers. Toyota’s result? Too early to tell.

NOTE: I say “consumers who might have suffered” because, as of today, there is still not one concrete piece of evidence that can link a Toyota design problem to an injury or death. NHTSA has linked 5 consumer deaths to pedal entrapment, but “pedal entrapment” is simply a loose floor mat…and no one can say that drivers don’t have at least some culpability for that problem. We’re all responsible for our own floor mats, are we not?

3 Fundamental Truths The Scandal Has Not Changed

1. Despite dozens of tests, NO ONE has shown that Toyota’s electronic throttle system has a problem. Allegations of electronic throttle problems helped launch this entire scandal, and those allegations are STILL unproven.

2. Drivers are almost always to blame in every car accident. Michael Fumento wrote a great editorial for Forbes magazine that illustrates quite clearly the fact that drunk driving, distracted driving, aggressive driving, and a lack of seatbelt use are the big killers. While the media frets over 100 deaths that could be attributed to Toyota (102 deaths are based on the number of lawsuits filed, while federal accident data only implicates Toyota problems as a possible cause of 5 deaths), 300,000 deaths due to driver error don’t get discussed.

3. Americans still love and trust Toyota. Toyota’s sales growth in 2010 shows that, despite all the negative publicity, Toyota still has a product that America loves.

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  1. TXTee says:

    Get real on the Hyundai and Ford thing….no way would I chose either of those companies over Toyota and quite a few other manufacturers! Sorry, Jason – had to put my 2 cents in on that. 🙂 I am glad that executives are taking much better heed due to the spiral of events that have occurred.

  2. mk says:

    Ford and Hyundai cars are getting better and competing head on with Toyota’s quality right now since I feel since say 2007 on up Toyota’s car quality has declined a notch. The Ford Fusion is a very competent car competing and probably exceeding the Camry and Hyundai’s Elantra is on par with the Corolla, although not quite as good as gas mileage as the Corolla. When I bought our 2009 Corolla a little over 1 year ago, I considered the Elantra and it had more interior room and a tad cheaper than the Corolla, but besides 2-3 more mpg with Corolla, at that time, the Corolla had higher resale value 2-3 years down the road. That may be changing a little with Hyundai and Ford’s quality I think improving. Toyota has for way too long relied on customers just to expect quality and from now on for me anyways, they have to EARN my business in the future for I will buy the best quality vehicle out there I feel for my money whether truck or car that suits my needs. So, if anything goes wrong with my 2 current Toyota’s within the next 2 warrantied years, I may consider jumping ships, but that will be 2 years from now or so I hope.

  3. rich says:

    I believe this has been a good wake-up call for Toyota. They needed the reality check to fix issues. I just received my floor mat recall today…lol. The recall states if the floor mats I am using are Toyota issued and they fall into a certain type of mat, then Toyota will give me new ones. BTW it even says the dealer will clean the driver side carpets. Since I use the truck to launch my wave runner, this type of mat has no use to me. I still believe in Toyota but I also agree with mk, some of the other companies are breathing down Toyota’s back. In the end this will make it better for us, the consumer!

  4. Jeremy says:

    Competition is good for the consumer.

  5. mk says:

    Yep, agree Jeremy as well. However, with GM and Chrysler getting a gift handed to them by us taxpayers, competition comes at a very, very, very high cost to us consumers. I’m still not sure Chrysler will make it out of the dungeon and GM has a long way to go as well, but not as bad. Toyota better not rest on its past because the past is long gone in todays market for sure. By the way, the floor mat recall is a farce as far as I am concerned and have for over 20 years ran 2 mats stacked on top of each other no problems whatsoever. Mine even has the plastic hooks in the back of the mats and I still got the stupid recall – I don’t get that at all.

  6. […] Toyota Unintended Acceleration Scandal Update – 255 Days Later | Tundra Headquarters […]

  7. Anonymous says:

    Chrysler is going to be fine. 2011 Titan is going go have a Ram frame and a HEMI drive line. Nissan is looking at venturing into a heavy duty line up. Toyota seems to be the only manufacture spinning their tires right now. Quailty of other manufactures have surpassed Toyota in the past couple years.

  8. Jason says:

    TXTee – Understood. 🙂

    mk – I think Hyundai and Ford have been getting closer, but that doesn’t mean Toyota is getting worse. They’re all improving, but I would agree that Toyota’s cost-cutting hurt quality of materials, etc. GREAT point about the cost of competition.

    rich – Agreed – the things that don’t kill us only make us stronger, right? 🙂

    Jeremy – for sure.

    Anon – What are you talking about man? The Nissan – Chrysler deal was canceled more than a year ago.

  9. Brian says:

    mk – In reply to your first post: I, too, considered jumping ship and test drove the F-150 and Silverado. The F-150 is very nice, but in the end I chose a Tundra. Just something about driving that truck that felt like an old pair of comfy blue jeans. I suspect in 2 years you’ll have the same experience. Once you go to Toyota, you just can’t drive anything else!

  10. TXTee says:

    I will have to agree with Jason that Ford and Hyundai still have a way to go…..in comparison to Toyota AND other manufacturers. Most auto makers’ quality is not declining overall but increasing. And sorry but Hyundai is NOT a top pick in my book. I haven’t driven the 2010s to make a comparison but I’d never spend the money to get a jittery Elantra over a more solid-shifting Corolla. Much less buy from a company that wants to compete against the luxury market by comparing their Genesis to a Lexus. And talk about cheap plastics….the Elantra will fall apart in no time while the seats are horrible and made of cheap thin fabric. And again, resale is a huge factor. As for Ford – sorry…won’t even touch the lot to know what the Fusion can or can’t do. I’ve driven F-150s and F-250s and have never been sold on them. Plus the Fords are too ugly….I can’t roll in aesthetically unpleasing sights unless that’s the only thing I could afford to get from A to B. A few thousand bucks difference financed over the course of 5 years…..I’d stick with a Corolla or Civic for a whopping $20 more a month.

  11. Mickey says:

    Well I’m not intrested in anything at the moment but I do believe Hyundai has moved up to challengethe rest. They do put out some decent vehicles. I won’t bother about the Big 3. I leave that to anonymous.

  12. Jr says:

    hah. i think i once read somewhere in a post here, that often enough some people do start out with a toyota as their first car. I am one of those, and im pretty damn proud i drive a toyota. Its sad how alot of toyota’s customers dont know how to put their vehicle in neutral if the gas pedal got “stuck open.”

  13. Mickey says:

    Agree Jr….. Totally agree….

  14. Justin says:

    Update on Toyota’s handling of recalls and defects. Looks like Toyota may be heading towards another possible fine. Some pretty damning evidence.

    “Records of Toyota warranty repairs and customer complaints that are part of the lawsuit show that the car company was dealing with cracking and breaking steering relay rods in the U.S. for at least 11 years before it recalled 330,000 pickups and SUVs in Japan to replace the rods — and 12 years before its 2005 recall of nearly a million similar trucks in the U.S. for the problem.”

    “There is a pattern of covering up defects at Toyota,” asserts Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group often at odds with both automakers and NHTSA. “It looks to me like Toyota knew about” the relay rod problem long before the recalls, he says.”

    “Because the documents are part of a lawsuit, Toyota declined to comment or to address why it told NHTSA in 2004 there wasn’t a U.S. problem, even though Toyota had been fielding U.S. complaints for years and had been making warranty repairs for more than a decade.”

    “The warranty records show that not only was the company replacing relay rods in U.S. trucks under warranty, but also doing so-called goodwill replacements, free repairs on vehicles on which the warranty has expired.”

    “It would seem unusual that warranty work would be conducted after the warranty period, unless it were a known fault. There’s a certain admission of guilt if the work is repeatedly performed after the warranty period,” says Jeff Bartlett, an editor at auto and consumer products tester Consumer Reports. “That would suggest they saw a trend, an emerging problem.”

    “The steering problem apparently was well-known enough to Toyota dealers that at least once — in August 1995 — a dealer replaced the rod on a new pickup before it was sold, the warranty records show.”

    http://www.usatoday.com/money/.....4_CV_N.htm

  15. Jason says:

    Justin – That’s a good link. I remember reading about that before and thinking that was a great example of poor management: https://www.tundraheadquarters.com/blog/2009/12/28/toyota-safety-problem-conspiracy/

    As for the quote from CR’s Jeff Bartlet stating that “It would seem unusual that warranty work would be conducted after the warranty period, unless it were a known fault,” that’s total BS. Toyota and other manufacturers offer consumers after-warranty-assistance on a regular basis purely in the interest of customer service.

    I think Toyota’s corporate culture is in serious need of a re-alignment. Hopefully, that’s happening now.

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