Popular Mechanics, December, 2009


What's Next for Toyota: Your Top Recall Questions, Answered

After two days of congressional grilling, the hits keep on coming for Toyota. Here are the answers to the top recall questions about the company going forward and how the recalls will change all of our cars.

Some may say that the worst is over for Toyota. Its company honchos have endured the ritual humiliation on Capitol Hill. The death-machine headlines have abated. And dealers are fixing recalled cars. Perhaps the storm has passed.

But questions still linger-notably, what will be the ultimate consequence of Toyota's nightmare episode? One outcome, according to Toyota, is the implementation of a standard company-wide brake over-ride system. This system will close the throttle whenever the brake pedal is pressed. This "fix" attempts to address the long-held belief that driver error is at play in the vast majority of unintended sudden-acceleration events. If the throttle is stuck open for any reason, the brake pedal will override it. Many manufactures, including Porsche, BMW, Volkswagen and Audi have employed this feature for years. It's likely that this system will be mandated for all cars. But still, there are the mystifying complaints of drivers who report the vehicle speeding uncontrollably despite "standing" on the brake.

Beyond the brake-pedal override, there are several other issues that many are wondering about. Here are some of the top Toyota recall questions, answered by auto analyst and reporter David Kiley.

Is Toyota's quality seriously in question with this recall?

Yes, but keep in mind that Toyota scores extremely well in rankings by J.D. Power and Associates, Consumer Reports and others. Its vehicles have high short-term quality (complaints in the first three months) and long term reliability (complaints over three years) scores. But part of quality is how well a company reacts to customer issues. By Toyota's own admission this week, the cars it has built over the last five years or so don't adhere to the high standards the company established and became known for in the 1980s and 1990s. And worse, it has grown so big so quickly that it overlooked basic procedures, such as sharing recall data and decisions it was making in Japan and Europe with U.S. counterparts.

How did that happen?

Toyota executives have been very forthright and self-critical. Both Japanese and American executives admit to taking their eyes off the ball, placing rapid sales growth above the needs and requirements of the customer. They especially admit that when complaints were coming in, the organization reacted defensively instead of responsively. Customer complaints were ignored, or otherwise not taken very seriously. When an organization feels that sales growth and market share increases are an overwhelming priority, the message is clear that no one will be rewarded for spotlighting problems that will slow the company down.

If my Toyota is not recalled, does that means it's safe?

You would have to assume so. I would look after or remove the floor mats to be safe. The other fix being done is to the accelerator pedal. But if yours hasn't been recalled, I'd assume it's safe.

Is my car on the recall list safe to drive until I get a dealer appointment?

The Department of Transportation says they are not safe until floor mats are removed or the pedal-assembly modification is performed.

Is Toyota going to offset my costs if I get a rental until my car is fixed?

You should check with your Toyota dealer on this. In New York state, the company agreed to pick up vehicles at owners' homes and provide rental vehicles while their car was being fixed. Toyota said this week it would extend that offer nationwide.

Why can't these brake over-ride things be retrofitted onto all cars?

The brake override only works on cars with electronic throttles, and even on cars with that feature, some systems simply can't accommodate the brake override. It has to be integrated into the car's whole system, and if the design preceded the company's plans to include it as an option, then it would be prohibitively expensive, or impossible to do. Imagine trying to take a car with an automatic transmission and convert it to a manual.

Toyota said they were doing recalls on this in Europe and Asia on the same cars. How could it be that they wouldn't automatically do the same fixes in the U.S.?

The reasons a car might be recalled in the U.K. might have no relevance to a car being recalled in the U.S. because the specs of the cars are different, and the regulators make judgments based on different criteria. Toyota says it now plans to coordinate all safety and accident date, recalls and technical bulletins across the globe to look for things that need to be addressed globally and not just continent to continent, or country to country.

What's going to happen to the value of my Toyota?

One of the things Toyota is grappling with is this: If Toyota owners want to trade in their old Toyota and buy a new one with a brake override, will the company offset the drop in resale value with extra incentive money? This will get murky because car companies make more money selling a vehicle privately than as a trade-in. My guess is that owners who feel very strongly about trading in their Toyota will do better in the end by going to a dealer once Toyota makes it clear what kind of incentive programs they will make available. In the end, it's hard to believe a customer will come out as well trading in a Toyota for a new one this year as they would have a year ago.

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