TOPICS > Economy

Toyota’s Safety Record Dented as Recall Widens

January 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
Loading the player...
Toyota expanded its recall to China and Europe on Thursday, but said it was nearing a fix to the gas pedal problem that pushed the automaker to halt sales and production on several popular models.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the fallout from Toyota’s big recall.

Today, the world’s largest automaker extended its North American recall and suspension of sales of several top models to include vehicles in Europe and China.

“NewsHour” correspondent Kwame Holman spent the day gathering reactions.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Toyota recalls were the talk of the exhibition hall this morning at the weeklong auto show in Washington, D.C.

Joe Ratti is like millions of Toyota customers worldwide, loyal to a brand with a strong reputation for quality and reliability.

JOE RATTI: They found the problem. They stopped everything. They’re going to fix the problem. And we both are of that mode, tell us what it is, let us decide, not make it sound pretty.

CHARLES STRINGFELLOW, chair, 2010 Washington Auto Show: Any recall presents a problem and any recall has to be dealt with by the manufacturer. And they will do it, and they will have a fix for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Auto show organizer Charles Stringfellow is part of a group that owns 14 auto franchises, including Toyota dealerships in the Mid-Atlantic region.

CHARLES STRINGFELLOW: Toyota is a brand that’s been around for a long time. They are a very good, quality brand, and have been for years. And consumers are very happy with the cars. They have good customer satisfaction. And I believe the problem will resolve itself in a relatively short period of time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, Toyota halted U.S. sales of five models, including its bestseller, the Camry, in the face of growing concern their accelerators can stick, sending vehicles out of control.

In all, more than two million now have been recalled, covering eight models in this year’s line and up to six years earlier. They are the Corolla, the Highlander, the Matrix, the Venza, and the Pontiac Vibe, manufactured in conjunction with Toyota.

Toyota dealers have been left trying to explain to their customers.

Peter Kitzmiller is head of the Maryland Auto Dealers Association.

PETER KITZMILLER, president, Maryland Automobile Dealers Association: People call in, and they’re not able to give them an absolute answer on when or what or how this is going to be taken care of. And that’s — it’s a hard position to be in.

We’re not normally used to telling our customers, hey, we don’t know. We’re used to taking care of their issues. So, that’s been very difficult. I hope that is going to get resolved as quickly as possible.

KWAME HOLMAN: The problem came into sharp focus after a 2009 incident in California in which a Lexus ES-350 sedan suddenly sped up and crashed, killing all four occupants.

But, in 2008, Toyota had repaired gas pedals in some Tundra pickup trucks after reports they were slow to rise after being depressed. The company also said it suspected floor mats catching the pedals might be a cause of sudden acceleration and offered to replace the mats.

That concern led to the recall of millions of Toyotas late last year. This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it’s been working with Toyota to correct what it called serious defects in vehicles for the last several months.

John Davis is an analyst with PBS’s “Motor Week,” the longest-running auto show on television.

JOHN DAVIS, Motor Week: Well, clearly, Toyota is finding itself in a very a unfamiliar situation. They have spent a generation building up this quality and reliability image. And here they are over the last few months faced with major recalls, and this latest one talking about sticking accelerator pedals, a really dramatic situation.

And I’m not sure that they know how to handle it as well as, say, some of the domestic automakers that have been through this before.

KWAME HOLMAN: Toyota says it has received 2,000 complaints about engine speed problems in its vehicles over the last 10 years.

So far, one supplier of accelerator parts, Denso, based in Japan, reportedly has been cleared. Attention has focused on CTS, which makes accelerator parts in the U.S. for Toyota.

Still, Toyota has called the acceleration problem rare and infrequent. Nonetheless, drivers are worried.

STANLEY HUBBARD: I feel that they knew there was a problem and they probably figured it would be cheaper for us not to go in and do all of this and just accept the risk of what little bit that might happen.

BARBARA GRIGGS: Really hate to be on the highway and then just be going at a top-rate speed and not be able to control the vehicle.

KWAME HOLMAN: Toyota is advising its dealers to act on customer concerns on a case-by-case basis. And experts recommend drivers whose vehicles unexpectedly accelerate should shift into neutral and turn off the engine.

Analysts wonder if Toyota’s rush to become the world’s top automaker too quickly may have contributed to the accelerator problem.

JOHN DAVIS: I do think that what you’re seeing now is Toyota being a victim of its own success.

When you’re a small player, and you have problems, it doesn’t get big headlines. But when you become the second-biggest automaker in America, and basically challenge GM for leadership, and take all this market share away from GM, Ford, and Chrysler and others, you know, when something hits the fan like this, it’s big news.

So, in a way, you could say you saw this coming just as they got bigger and more prosperous. But, still, I think it says that a company as good as Toyota, this shouldn’t have happened. And I do think that we will see a lot of corrective measures by them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

KWAME HOLMAN: The recalls and sales suspensions mean shutdowns of six Toyota factories. At the Toyota assembly plant in Huntsville, Alabama, workers were feeling the pain.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s competitors are wasting no time. General Motors and Ford have offered cash to customers who switch from Toyota. We spoke to dealers in Minnesota.

DOUG SPRINTHALL, Walser Automotive Group: They’re always hopeful, and they hope that some Toyota customers that maybe were considering a Toyota will look at their brands.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the three largest car rental companies announced they are pulling the recalled Toyota models out of their fleets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the record, Toyota is a “NewsHour” underwriter.

The following editor’s note was included in the PBS NewsHour’s broadcast on Jan. 29: We received letters from viewers asking for more information about what to do if the accelerator sticks while driving. Well, here’s a fuller explanation, as recommended by Toyota: To stop immediately, step on the brake pedal with both feet and apply steady pressure. Don’t pump the brake. Shift the gear into neutral, while pressing the brake to make a controlled stop, and then turn off the engine. If the car won’t shift into neutral, shut the engine off by turning the key, but don’t remove the key. Doing this will disable power brakes and steering, but Toyota says that manual steering and braking control can still be maintained by the driver. If the car uses a button for ignition, press the button steadily for at least three seconds to turn the engine off.