The term "unintended acceleration" sounds so clinical. But in reality, it's hard to imagine a more terrifying problem than to be in a vehicle whose accelerator suddenly seems to have a mind of its own.
That is the nightmare that has faced hundreds of Toyota owners, if all the complaints are to be believed. Drivers unable to stop their vehicles, scores of serious accidents and as many as 34 deaths, leading eventually to one of the biggest auto recalls of all time — some eight million vehicles worldwide. A problem with the brakes on the Toyota Prius and other hybrid models led to a further recall of 437,000 vehicles.
For Toyota, it's been nothing less than a public relations disaster. Almost overnight, the automaker went from enjoying one of the best reputations for safety and quality in the industry to being a poster child for danger and unreliability. It's had to scramble to find quick answers. Was it because of floor mats or the accelerator pedal? Electronics or mechanics? Wear or condensation?
All the while, critics are circling, politicians are probing, lawyers are suing, and the driving public is wondering what's actually going on.
Has Toyota completely lost its touch?
Some industry observers say it's time for a bit of context.
Last month, the influential automotive website, Edmunds.com, obtained the entire complaint database from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a nine-year period ending Feb. 3, 2010. It then set about calculating the overall number of complaints per vehicle sold.
'A broader view shows that consumer complaints reflect an industry issue, not just a Toyota issue.'—Jeremy Anwyl, CEO, Edmunds.com
Yes, Toyota is the target of many complaints in the database, but when Edmunds.com ranked the total number of complaints per vehicle sold, Toyota came in 17th — with fewer complaints by market share than the Big Three, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, or Volvo (Land Rover ranked first).
"No one should overlook the issues raised by the Toyota recalls, but it is important to keep things in perspective," said Edmunds.com chief executuve Jeremy Anwyl. "A broader view shows that consumer complaints reflect an industry issue, not just a Toyota issue."
A look at Transport Canada's recall database shows much the same thing. Search through its database for all recalls affecting the 2009 model year for all makes, and you can quickly find the recalls of various Toyota models for the infamous accelerator problem. But you also find more than 800 other recalls affecting other automakers — many for safety issues.
At the same time Toyota was recalling vehicles this winter, GM and Nissan announced major recalls of their own.
In early March, General Motors said 1.3 million Chevrolet and Pontiac compact cars sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico needed fixes to their power-steering motors. At the same time, Nissan announced it would recall 540,000 vehicles for potential brake-pin problems and faulty fuel gauges.
The media focus, however, has remained firmly on Toyota. Less than a week later, when a California man reported that he'd barely been able to control his Prius when it accelerated suddenly, it became a front-page, lead-the-newscast story, even though no accident resulted.
Canadian automotive analyst Dennis DesRosiers has some thoughts on what he calls a "media feeding frenzy." He says it's due to a number of factors swirling around the automotive vortex — only some of which are Toyota-specific.
For one thing, he points out that Toyota is "No. 1," and that's enough to make it a target. "Today it is Toyota .… The last couple of decades, it was GM," he said in remarks emailed to clients in the first week of March. Being No. 1 also makes it a juicy target for class-action lawsuits, he points out, and there have been dozens launched.
He also notes that Toyota and other import nameplate brands "have caused a lot of pain in North America with their success. Toyota represents a huge target for this discontent."
Many of DesRosiers' observations about the "feeding frenzy" over Toyota relate to the wider industry. Toyota's recall is huge, he agrees, but he says all automakers will likely have their own turn in the recall spotlight as cars become increasingly sophisticated and consumers demand lower cost.
"Those who understand vehicles know perfectly well how many corners have been cut by all the [automakers]," he writes. "But at the end of the day, cutting corners potentially leads to issues with a vehicle and commonality of components means that when problems surface, millions of vehicles across many platforms are affected."
Some emails to CBC.ca and other media have pointed out that the U.S. government owns stakes in two of Toyota's main competitors — GM and Chrysler — so have a reason to focus aggressively on Toyota. For the record, Toyota itself says it doesn't consider that to be a factor behind the scrutiny.
In fact, Ford faced a similarly tough congressional grilling in 2000 over Bridgestone/Firestone tires used on the automaker's Explorer SUV. The tires were implicated in rollover crashes that were linked to more than 100 deaths.
Slow to respond
Toyota, to be sure, didn't help its situation when it was slow off the mark to respond to the size and gravity of the problem. It also damaged the company's reputation when news broke that Toyota execs boasted in July 2009 of saving the company $100 million by negotiating a limited recall of floor mats in the U.S.
Toyota has launched a new advertising campaign that features happy owners talking about their safe and reliable cars. Too soon, say some marketing experts.
"We haven't had that chance to just get through the problem, and they're already trying to sell me stuff?" said Mike Sheldon, CEO of ad agency Deutsch LA. "I believe that consumers will feel a little confused, like, 'Aren't you still fixing the problem? Why are you trying to sell me so hard?'"
Toyota says the repairs are underway. It says it's fixed 60 per cent of the 270,000 vehicles involved in the Canadian recall.
"We have 100 per cent confidence in the remedies we have put in place," Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty told the House of Commons transport committee.
So far, Toyota sales haven't taken a hit in Canada. Toyota's Canadian sales in February were up 25 per cent over last year's. Several models — including the Prius — reported their best February sales figures ever. For now, Canadians seem to be giving the automaker a free pass. Another big recall, or another well-publicized case of a Toyota gone wild, and that could change.
Toyota's reputation for quality and safety took decades to build. It still has many loyal customers. Still, the speed at which its carefully managed image began to unravel this winter holds valuable lessons for all automakers.