Veteran Of The Car Safety Wars Speaks Out

The Toyota safety and quality fiasco is an enigma.

by on Feb.22, 2010

Nader's polemic, Unsafe At Any Speed, a clear exaggeration, led to significant safety reforms.

Even as a grizzled veteran of the car safety wars that began with the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed in the mid-1960s, I find it hard to fathom how Toyota has fallen into the mess it finds itself in.

Toyota has benefited from a carefully nurtured reputation for quality and reliability over the last three decades. Unlike domestic manufacturers, Toyota was one of the first to go to longer warranties as the Detroit Three – claiming equivalent quality – stuck with far shorter ones that were less expensive for them, but not their customers.

Toyota also went the extra mile for its customers, quietly fixing out-of-warranty complaints. Critics called these “secret warranties” – although Toyota never was caught at it – and indeed, they were, but they helped build Toyota’s reputation and enviable,money-making owner loyalty.

In Detroit, lawyers and quarterly-finance-report-driven bean counters ruled the roost, rigidly enforcing warranty limits, blithely enduring the wrath of owners who, feeling short-changed, fell into the arms of auto companies backing their products for the longer term.

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Perspective!

This is not just speculation. My bride of 20 years ago owned a new Camry, an otherwise fine car that, however, eventually suffered from rusting quarter panels and failing $500 exhaust systems. We learned that Toyota had beyond-warranty “customer satisfaction” programs that covered these flaws. In the case of the exhaust system, we did not find this out until the second set of pipes and mufflers failed.

Well Publicized Safety Issues of the Past

Nevertheless, what about the big safety issues of those past decades? As noted, the first was Nader’s attack on the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair introduced in 1959. His legal argument was that the car handled differently than front-engine cars, therefore typical American drivers were unsafe driving them. Of course, VW, Renault and Porsche also were rear-engine, but at the time their manufacturers were far away, their pockets shallow and their numbers few.

Along with most other auto writers then, I loved the Corvair’s neat handling and fascinating features.  

But GM got upside down with Congress after siccing private eyes on Nader to see if his attack on Corvair was part of a plaintiff lawyer scheme. It did not work. The Corvair died after only nine model years, 1960 to 1969, and after the head of GM, James Roche, apologized for GM’s tactics in front of a congressional hearing.

Then, egged on by a police union dispute with the city of Baltimore, the puritanical fury of that day’s media turned on Ford with allegations that its police sedans, granddaddies of today’s Ford Crown Vic, suffered from weak front suspensions. The attack was led by Nader’s self-appointed non-governmental Center for Automotive Safety, relying on careless reporting of in-service replacement parts from Ford’s own warranty data.

At the extreme, CAS claimed Fords crashed out of control when follow-up investigations showed that some such crashes, regardless of cause, involved other makes instead; when called to account privately by Ford, CAS whined that it didn’t have resources to investigate, and indeed did not investigate. CAS assumed any out-of-control crash had to be a Ford, caused by a broken lower control arm.

Consumer Reports, closely allied then with CAS and Nader, joined the inquisition along with a Long Island daily newspaper. I was PR’s point man on the defense team, fielding wife-beating questions from a mere handful of print media while Ford field engineers desperately tracked down reports of suspension failures, trying to determine their validity and cause. Meanwhile, development engineers ran police cars over curbs at high speeds—as might happen in pursuit circumstance – trying to duplicate the allegations of breakage; they found none. And the field engineers found unbelievable abuse by owners – for example, driving a car daily for 30 miles over railroad ties – which in a bare handful of cases had led to suspension arm failures.

However, despite adverse publicity, the number of reported incidents diminished. The police union got its way with the city, and their complaints disappeared. Ford learned that it had to be more careful in classifying parts replacements to the newly formed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reports quickly made public – data that the professional critics misunderstood. There was no recall to correct a safety defect, but Ford’s reputation suffered from the brushfire of media attention.

The NHTSA Five-Day Rule

As Detroit settled into having its products overseen by Federal bureaucrats for the first time in the late 1960s, Ford’s Campaign Review Committee found that under the new law, it had to determine, often with inadequate information, whether product failures (usually reported through dealership service departments) were “safety-related.” Moreover, within five days of such a decision, it was obligated immediately to report the finding to NHTSA. That rule, first formed over 40 years ago, still stands today.

Auto manufacturers were apprehensive of the five-day rule, because rarely did defects threaten immediate hazards, and the companies desired time to have fixes and any required parts in dealer service hands to take care of anxious customers. But they learned to live with the rule.

However, it seems apparent from recent events that Toyota may have been failing to comply with the five-day rule, whether by plan, mindset or misinterpretation of what Washington means by “five days.”

As a member of Ford’s Campaign Review Committee for four to five years in the 1970s and early 1980s, I learned safety defects mostly derive from execution failures, such as improper manufacturing processes. Of great concern always was the possibility of a design defect, though these were extremely rare. That was in the days before extensive electronic content, electronics in which defects may well be invisible or, worse yet, intermittent – unlike mechanical flaws.

Quite similar to Toyota’s problems with possible steering, braking and unintended acceleration flaws were claims during the Carter Administration that Ford automatic transmissions “jumped” from Park to Reverse. The matter began with a single complaint from a volunteer at the Center for Auto Safety who believed her Lincoln had jumped from Park to Reverse while she was unloading groceries from the trunk.

At the time, NHTSA was headed by one of Nader’s former aides, who attacked Ford in the media with allegations of a widespread safety hazard from a supposed defect in transmission design. By then, network television had become part of the media mix, resulting in a flood of new pubic complaints rising from the publicity. NHTSA engineers actually rigged a Ford with a tampered transmission for demonstration with a compliant TV network—but Ford investigators were able to challenge the tinkering. (The offending network quietly clipped footage showing the rigging from its unrelenting - and continuing – news coverage.)

A suspicion in Dearborn that Ford was being unfairly singled out was triggered by the newspaper account from a Michigan village of a Cadillac locked in reverse, continually twirling until it ran out of gas. An analysis of the anecdotal accounts of unattended Ford cars moving in reverse showed a high proportion of elderly drivers, new drivers or drivers in a hurry—i.e., possible driver error.

Then someone at Ford got the bright idea to survey small town newspapers throughout the state for accounts of similar incidents, the kinds of stories that do not make it to big city papers or television stations. The result was that Ford could present its own anecdotal evidence to NHTSA that Ford products were no more involved in such incidents than their share of the vehicle population.

NHTSA backed down from its unwarranted attack on Ford, but a few years later, Audi found itself in a similar situation, with allegations of unintended acceleration. The result was issuance of a new regulation, still in effect, requiring the brake pedal to be depressed before the selector can be moved from Park to Reverse.

(Stop/start buttons, growing in popularity, are a case where automakers are setting themselves up for another safety fiasco while NHTSA looks the other way.  Indeed, a California Highway Patrol officer and his family are dead, arguably, from Lexus’s use of a start/stop button which won’t shut off an accelerating car unless you hold the button down for, one, two, three seconds, an eternity at 100 mph. This tragic drama played out to its fatal end on the 911 emergency call tape from the desperate officer. It was this accident and subsequent ones that caused NHTSA to increase its scrutiny of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems and force subsequent multiple recalls, which may not be over yet. – Ken Zino, editor. Click here. )

At that time some 30 years ago, NHTSA had no system for gathering information on a scientific basis, relying entirely on anecdotal accounts. As Toyota has found, this is still true today, despite the development of the (Police FARS reports that only deal with fatal crashes or injuries that result in death within 30 days of the crash.) and more recently Electronic Data Recorders (EDRs or “black boxes”) in vehicles beginning in the 1990s.

In short, determining whether there are patterns of defects constituting a safety problem is not easy. Such problems are sometimes hard to define, much less defend, and publicity—competitive media thirst for blood – only makes it worse. So-called social media, cable news and blogs only heighten the pressure.

Today’s NHTSA is far wiser, more professional and independent of Washington and industry pressures than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

However, politicians do not change and thus Toyota now has to face Congressional inquiries with all the accompanying grandstanding, posturing and scheming for media blessing. (Click here for Ken Zino’s curtain raiser piece: Toyota Congressional Hearings: What to Expect)

So I find myself, despite my deep-seated Detroit chauvinism, actually feeling sorry for Toyota.

Up to a point that is: The Japanese world-beating auto company may have brought the onslaught on itself with long-standing policies of doing anything to protect its product reputation. Along the way, Toyota was encouraged by unreasonably loyal customers; customers who truly believed Toyota could do no wrong and thus did not complain about brake, steering or acceleration problems.

There is a certain psychology, especially about cars that possess high emotional content—extensions of their owner’s personalities—that discourages complaints because owners believe they must be experiencing exceptions not worth mentioning when seemingly all others say everything is fine.

This shows up when actual data, such as warranty claims are measured against voluntary subjective reports, a phenomenon not limited to Toyota, import brands or even cars. Indeed, self reported problems, or lack of same, is one of the flaws of Consumer Reports’ extensive data on cars, appliances and other consumer products.

(Warranty claims are rarely made public, where car companies use every legal means possible to keep such data sealed. This is also the case in the Toyota Prius controversy, where NHTSA has restricted public access to the warranty data – editor.)

Can Toyota weather the storm? Only time will tell. Clearly, the magic of its impeccable reputation is gone.

However, the company has millions of still loyal customers, deep pockets for marketing incentives or longer warranties, an extensive and well-executed product line, and – up to this point – some of the most profitable dealers in the country.

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