The CBS Evening News (2/25, story 7, 3:30, Couric) reported that Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda wept as he thanked a group of Toyota dealers in Washington for “supporting him through the company’s troubles” and said “his company has to rethink its operations after 8.5 million vehicles were recalled for unintended acceleration. All of this has focused new attention on, Toyota of course, the federal agency responsible for the recalls and the revolving door between the two.” The piece notes that some in Congress are critical of ties between NHTSA and Toyota, which has hired a number of its executives away from that agency. “Christopher Santucci’s job at NHTSA was to conduct defects investigations of automakers and some of his probes were into Toyota. … At some point, while working at NHTSA, Santucci negotiated himself a job at Toyota, the very company he’d investigated. … Yesterday, Congress asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if there’s a conflict.” Ray LaHood, Transportation Secretary: “Absolutely not.”
Toyota CEO assures LaHood of recommitment to safety. The AP (2/26, Manning) reports that Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, speaking at his firm’s “largest North American manufacturing plant” in Georgetown, Kentucky, yesterday, told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that Toyota “would ‘advance safety to the next level’ as it tries to restore customer faith in its cars and trucks that has been badly damaged by the recall of 8.5 million vehicles over safety concerns.” Toyoda added that his firm “was ‘at a crossroads.’ ‘We need to rethink everything about our operations,’ he told about 100 workers.” The AP details the legal and public perception problems that are plaguing Toyota, including probes by the FBI and SEC, along “large numbers of death and injury lawsuits” the company expects to spawn from the recall crisis.
Toyota’s safety chief to testify before Senate panel Tuesday. The Detroit News (2/26, Shepardson) reports that Toyota executive VP Shinichi Sasaki, “who oversees the company’s safety efforts,” is scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee next Tuesday. The piece notes that acting NHTSA chief Ron Medford met with Sasaki in Japan in December “over the company’s handling of recalls. Also testifying will be Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, NHTSA administrator David Strickland and Yoshimi Inaba, Toyota’s top North American executive.”
The Los Angeles Times (2/26, Bensinger, Vartabedian) reports that after this week’s hearings, “Washington is just getting started. … Lawmakers said Thursday that they were planning further hearings scrutinizing both Toyota and the federal agency that oversees it. One possible outcome: new laws aimed at keeping regulators up to date with the rapid advances in automotive technology, including computer-controlled engine systems.
Toyota hearings said to benefit trial lawyers. In his column in the Wall Street Journal (2/26), Holman Jenkins suggests that this week’s congressional hearings into Toyota’s safety issue were for the benefit of trial lawyers, and dismisses the notion that electronic faults could be to blame for incidents of unintended acceleration.
“Win” document cites avoidance of Sienna liftgate recall. Bloomberg News (2/26, Green, Ohnsman) reports, “Toyota Motor Corp. in 2008 succeeded in blocking a formal recall of Sienna minivans linked by U.S. regulators to 98 injuries caused by collapsing liftgates, according to company and U.S. documents.” The piece notes that Toyota offered owners to replace the liftgates’ struts “as part of a ‘safety improvement campaign’ without acknowledging a defect,” in a move approved by NHTSA. “The Sienna case was among the ‘wins’ cited by the automaker’s Washington office in a memo obtained by a congressional panel investigating the recalls of 8 million Toyota vehicles worldwide for defects that could cause unintended acceleration. The claimed wins saved Toyota $255 million, including $100 million previously reported for less extensive responses to the acceleration issue, according to the memo.”
Toyota documents indicate knowledge of new NHTSA powers. The Detroit Free Press (2/26, Hyde) reports that an internal Toyota document in which the firm described limiting a 2007 recall “a $100 million ‘win’ for the company” also stated “that federal regulators were getting tougher on vehicle recalls.” In the document, Toyota “staff warned Inaba that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had new powers to force recalls, including civil fines.” However, “During his testimony Wednesday, Inaba said he did not recall the July 2009 meeting where he received the presentation, but that the claim of saving $100 million by limiting the 2007 recall to floor mats was ‘inconsistent’ with Toyota’s principles.”
Krauthammer says Toyota crisis points out difficulties of industrial product regulation. In a column in the Washington Post (2/26) Charles Krauthammer writes about the “astonishing array of mass-produced products” available to modern consumers which “are at once wondrous and potentially lethal.” He writes that “sorting out the endless complaints about these products is maddeningly difficult — though sort you must, otherwise every complaint would require shutting down the factories, and we’d have no industrial society at all.” Krauthammer alludes to the “calculation” on how deadly a product must be before it is taken from the market and the difficulty in telling “the idiosyncratic failure from the systemic.” He praises Toyota executives for taking strides to “correct what can be corrected” but concludes that “even the highest technology produced by the world’s finest companies can be fallible and fatal.”
From the American Association for Justice news release.