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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Recalls, rumors and Toyota's road ahead

By Mark Fukunaga

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

At Servco Auto Honolulu, technician Steven Ho shows how accelerator pedals are being modified after a nationwide Toyota recall.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Toyota manufactures the world's most popular cars and trucks. It became the market leader because of its reputation for quality vehicles and customer service.

But, as Toyota itself admits, it stumbled in recent months with its slow response to heightened customer and government regulatory concerns about the safety of several popular vehicles. The recalls both voluntary and mandatory of more than 8.5 million vehicles for potential problems with braking and acceleration, have spiraled into speculation about the quality of Toyota products.

We have been fortunate that there have been no confirmed reports of accidents or injuries in Hawai'i involving acceleration or braking problems in recalled vehicles.

Those vehicles include some of the top sellers in Hawai'i, and Toyota service centers throughout the state have been working long hours to make repairs as quickly as possible. We, as the distributors and dealers of Toyota vehicles, have been on the front line with our customers. We are deeply sorry for the inconvenience and anxiety caused by these recalls, and are grateful for the patience of Hawai'i customers.

The spotlight will focus on Toyota again this week when Congress convenes hearings in Washington, D.C. Toyota has admitted it made mistakes, and all of us in the Toyota family must do better. As part of our efforts, Servco has taken extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of our customers and their vehicles. In that spirit, I offer the following observations about Toyota's current situation.

First, more transparency is needed from manufacturers about safety issues. Toyota has pledged to make public disclosures about safety repairs on vehicles, even if there is no recall. And Toyota will be working more closely with the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate consumer complaints and increase communications between Toyota engineers and government safety agencies. These early disclosures might alarm those counting only safety alerts. But Toyota's openness will ultimately improve product safety and restore consumers' confidence.

Second, with heightened scrutiny on Toyota and on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, I would not be surprised by more recalls affecting all auto manufacturers. The congressional hearings will raise questions about NHTSA's decisions. The outcome will likely be more proactive, and possibly adversarial, regulatory scrutiny by NHTSA.

Toyota and other manufacturers will need to be more forthcoming with possible safety issues, even very remote ones. This is all good for the consumer. We, however, will have to adjust to this new reality, and realize that recalls will be more common.

Third, recent media accounts have begun to characterize Toyota vehicles as being "linked" to deaths in accidents involving possible unintended acceleration. There has yet to be established a single case of a manufacturing defect in a Toyota vehicle causing unintended acceleration that ended with a serious accident or death.

The highly publicized accident in San Diego apparently resulted from a dealer installing the wrong, oversized floor mat in the victims' loaner car. Until further investigations are completed, we should resist jumping to the unproven conclusion that problems in the manufacturing of Toyota vehicles caused any deaths.

We should remember the sad case of Audi. In the 1980s, Audi vehicles were implicated in alleged cases of unintended acceleration. In some media stories, Audi became "linked" to multiple deaths, and the brand was irreparably damaged for years.

After a thorough and objective investigation, however, Audi was exonerated and accidents were determined to have been caused by drivers mistakenly pressing on the wrong pedal, which continues to be the most common cause of unintended acceleration.

Fourth, recalls by themselves are not necessarily an indication of poor quality. Automobiles today reach levels of performance and fuel efficiency that were unthinkable in the past. They are also safer, and vehicle deaths per miles driven is at an all-time low, thanks to innovations like crumple zones, airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction control.

But, these advances make for complicated machines. That complexity means that things do occasionally go wrong in the manufacturing process, and recalls are a fact of life in the industry. Toyota has had a bad run over the past several weeks, but auto analysts continue to praise the manufacturer's overall quality record, including www.Edmunds.com, which published a study just this month.

Finally, there have been suggestions that Toyota ignored customer problems in its quest to become the world's leading carmaker. I can only speak to our company's relationship with Toyota, one that reaches back 52 years and covers relationships with thousands of Toyota employees ranging from CEOs to factory workers.

In all of those conversations, I have never heard anyone from Toyota talk of the necessity of profits, the need to cut corners, or the desire to be the biggest carmaker. Instead, the only goal that is ever mentioned is this: deliver a quality vehicle at a great value.

I can still recall a Toyota CEO grilling me about customer comments about a new Lexus model as his assistant diligently took notes. No other carmaker (and we deal with several others) takes that attitude that seriously.

Toyota may have made mistakes, but, based on decades of experience, I don't believe the company intentionally overlooked product problems.

For three generations, we have sold Toyota products to our families, friends and neighbors and we are confident that Toyota will regain the public's trust as a safe and reliable manufacturer of quality vehicles.