Auto Industry Reels From Toyota Recall

The auto industry generated a lot of news this week as Toyota recalled more vehicles and even halted sales and production of eight models. Ford reported profits, but it too may have to recall cars sold in China. The quality problems reflect the industry's global nature with parts suppliers and customers all over the world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And Im Ari Shapiro.

This week started on a bad note for Toyota, and it is ending on a worse one. Last night Congressional investigators asked for documents from the company. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is looking into the companys recall of millions of vehicles. The committee said, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, problems with sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles have led to 19 deaths in the last decade. Hearings are set for next month.

And to discuss these latest developments, we have NPRs Frank Langfitt, who covers the auto industry. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What, specifically, is the committee looking at here?

LANGFITT: Well, theyre asking for lots of documents. And what theyve said, is they want to know when Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first learned about these potential safety problems and what they did to investigate and try to resolve them. Now the committee said this in a statement, Im kind of quoting here, our government figures show nearly twice as many people died in Toyotas from sudden acceleration problems in the last decade than in cars from all other automakers combined. So thats another thing theyre really very interested in, is the number and the volume and how many of those are Toyotas.

SHAPIRO: Wow. And thats the fist time weve heard this number from the government. Has Toyota offered its own numbers?

LANGFITT: I talked to one of their spokesman yesterday, and he said the company is still going through data. In addition to government records, theyre also looking at customer complaints. Toyota says the problem with sudden acceleration is rare. This fellow I talked to at Toyota, said it averages about 200 complaints a year over the last decade and says thats not out of line with the rest of the industry.

SHAPIRO: Now, weve been hearing that the problem is sudden acceleration, as you said. Can you describe specifically whats wrong with these cars?

LANGFITT: Well, its really interesting. Its been very complicated and not, I think, easy for the public to understand. There are two main problems. Accelerators were getting stuck on floor mats. The other thing, though, is that the accelerators were sticking on their own, mechanically, so they werent springing up when people took their feet off.

Now, Toyota says these are not related, but can, of course, have the same effect. A car accelerates, driver loses control. Now Toyota began issuing recalls for the floor mat problems back in December and issued recalls for stuck accelerators last week. Now all together, this is more than five million vehicles recalled for one problem, the other or both.

But what really caught peoples attention this week, and certainly Congressional members, is Toyota stopped selling eight models for the faulty accelerator pedal concerns. And this was seen as a sign that Toyota was really taking this problem seriously and, you know, and very concerned.

SHAPIRO: What exactly is the problem with the accelerators?

LANGFITT: Well, the company says that it has to do with condensation effecting what seems to be kind of a plastic part in the accelerator assembly. Whats happening is when it gets worn it starts to stick. Now, Toyota didnt actually make this accelerator assembly, it came from a supplier named CTS. They are based in Indiana. And CTS insists that they built these accelerator assemblies to Toyotas specs, so they certainly seem to be suggesting, you know, any problem here isnt their fault.

SHAPIRO: Well, whats Toyotas plan to deal with all of this?

LANGFITT: Well, they say theyre already starting to. They switched from the plastic to some other materials that have better resistance to the condensation and wear, and CTS began shipping these new assemblies, last week, to factories. The problem is there are so many vehicles involved here. Now the plan is dealers will install a new accelerator to these recalled vehicles or make repairs to old ones. But the company hasnt decided exactly whats the best way to go about this, and it still needs to kind of share its plan with the government.

Toyota said to do this. It might just take an hour of labor but building all those accelerators and providing parts, it takes time. And given how many cars are involved, its probably going to take months to fix them.

SHAPIRO: And I suppose it will also take time to recover from the damage to the reputation and the brand that Toyota has experienced from this?

LANGFITT: Well, I think thats still an ongoing issue. As we were talking, these recalls began several months ago. Theres indication that certainly there were these problems earlier than the recalls, certainly people were noticing them. And so one of the questions going forward is, how does Toyota deal with this and also protect its reputation for quality, which has been so important to the brand?

SHAPIRO: Thanks a lot, Frank.

LANGFITT: Youre very welcome, Ari.

SHAPIRO: NPRs Frank Langfitt covers the auto industry.

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