Automotive Recall 101

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Transportation Scty. Ray LaHood advised consumers to "stop driving" their Toyotas, which he later recanted. But, for some, finding alternative transportation is easier said than done. Veteran automotive columnist Warren Brown offers a basic overview of auto recalls and whether the messages effectively reach those who need it most.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Harvard, the nation's oldest university, is an academic powerhouse, but it is not exactly known as a top basketball school. But a standout player is making a name for himself and changing Harvard's rep at the same time, and he has an unusual profile. We'll tell you more about Jeremy Lynn in a few minutes.

But first, much ado about Toyota. If you own one and/or drive one, then you are probably concerned about whether or not you should continue in the wake of recent headlines: the global recall of millions of vehicles because of concerns about accelerator pedals on a number of models and now concerns about the brakes on the 2010 model of the popular Prius.

At a congressional hearing yesterday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was asked what advice he would give to drivers of Toyota cars that are being recalled.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): My advice is if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have the fix for it.

MARTIN: But after he left the hearing, the secretary said he misspoke, which left us more confused than ever. So we decided to turn to the most plainspoken person we know in the world of cars, Warren Brown, car columnist for the Washington Post. He's been telling it like he sees it since 1982, and he's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Try not to hold back, Warren. Try not to - try to come out of the shell.

Mr. WARREN BROWN (Columnist, The Washington Post): Ah, Michel. Michel, it's always a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Well, thanks. Warren, as briefly as you can, I was going to ask you to read the list of the models affected, but it's such a long list that would take up many minutes. So I'm going to ask you to...

Mr. BROWN: We have eight models affected, and...

MARTIN: And so rather than read the list, I'm just going - we will refer our listeners to a couple of Web sites. There's toyotaproblems.com and carcomplaints.com. But, Warren, just give us the nexus of the complaints that brought these models to...

Mr. BROWN: The nexus of the complaint is that while the car is in motion, while it is driving, that the accelerator doesn't return. For example, when a person is approaching a stoplight or red light, he or she takes the foot off the accelerator. Then normally what happens is that the accelerator returns, car slows down, you hit the brakes. You stop it.

In this particular case, the complaint is that the accelerator does not return - that it somehow gets stuck. And that, as a result, crashes ensue. And that's the basis of it.

MARTIN: And now there's news today that safety regulators opened a formal investigation into consumer complaints about braking on the 2010 Prius hybrid. What's the problem there?

Mr. BROWN: Today's cars, Toyota and any other car from any major automaker, essentially what they are are computers on wheels, computers with steering wheels. Computers can be and have been affected by electromagnetic pulses. As a matter of fact, one thing many automakers do, the ones who manufacture and sell here, is they go out to Ohio - I forget the name of the place - but they go to Ohio someplace, which basically has a huge electromagnetic pulses, and they test the car to see if it's (unintelligible) electronic functions are negatively affected by those pulses.

And so it's logical to assume that electromagnetic pulses may, in this case, certainly affect brakes that don't rely on your traditional mechanical cables, but instead rely on sensors and other electronic materials. So...

MARTIN: So should you - if you're the owner of one of these vehicles or driving one of these vehicles, should you wait to be contacted to bring it in or should you just assume that there's a problem and call your dealer and bring it in, look for an appointment to bring it in?

Mr. BROWN: No, what you should is do what you should have been doing all along, that is paying attention to driving, not getting closer to people than you should be. If you feel some acceleration, what I usually do is quickly put it in neutral and squeeze on brakes. Squeeze on brakes because most of today's brakes have an interlock braking system and they pump themselves. You know, you don't pump them. You just squeeze on it hard, not suddenly but just squeeze. And that generally would help to bring the car in control.

Remember, neutral, brake. Some people brake and then go neutral. I don't brake and go neutral because sometimes the car will spin out of control if you're speeding up. So I go to neutral and then I brake. Will this damage the transmission? Possibly. But it's either your transmission or your life you choose.

MARTIN: So you should be very - you should be attentive to your driving and if you detect a problem...

Mr. BROWN: You really should be...

MARTIN: ...you shouldn't wait to be contacted.

Mr. BROWN: If you detect a problem, assume that the problem can occur again. But if the problem occurs while you're driving, I normally quickly put the car in neutral and squeeze on the brakes. And that usually gets me out of trouble.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with car columnist, Warren Brown about the Toyota recall. He's telling us what we should do. And, you know, you had an online chat on Monday where you said something that intrigued me. You said or you wrote that in the past, Toyota has been the reigning master of silent recalls in the United States. You write: it handled problems such as sludge and fuel tanks as consumer satisfaction programs.

If consumers complained, the problem was fixed free of charge or at reduced cost to customer. Smart Toyota dealers did something else. They investigated the cause of the problems themselves, made the fix and loaned their customers, Toyota vehicles better than the one they owned at no charge to the customer and many of those customers love it, buying a better vehicle at lower than the sticker price.

So, are you suggesting that there has actually been this kind of quality problems all along and it's just been ignored?

Mr. BROWN: Yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. I am suggesting that in this particular case, as in any other particular cases, the media failed for one thing because the media had anointed Toyota the quality leader because the domestic (unintelligible) supposedly messed up so badly. So the media failed. The media, to me, tended not to look at Toyota the same way it would look at General Motors, Ford, Chrysler.

And as you can see with the files I gave you, there were many reasons, you know, to look at Toyota. But time and time again, if there was a problem with sludge in tanks, for example, a murmur from the media and it passed. If there were other problems, a murmur from the media, it passed. And there was even a mindset among many Toyota owners and they would call me and say I have problem A, B, and C with my Toyota. What am I doing wrong?

If someone with a GM or Ford vehicle would call with a similar problem, oh these expletive people, you know, they messed up again. I'm going to sue them, so forth and so on. And so that was, you know, that was the mindset. And I think that mind set showed specifically, in this case, a lot of us knew. A lot of us who covered this industry knew for a long time that there were consumer complaints about braking, but we couldn't really interest anybody in those complaints because they were complaints against Toyota.

MARTIN: Was this so this is an issue of bedside manner as it were that maybe Toyota did such a good job of handling the customers that people didn't the issues weren't surfaced as opposed to, or is it that people were in denial about the extent of the problem?

Mr. BROWN: They were in denial about extent of the problem, Michel, but I will also say this: Toyota has the smartest, the best public relations people I have ever seen, you know? I remember, for example, Jim Press who I believe was in charge of Toyota's sales in the United States a while back. We were at a press conference in Geneva, okay? And everybody's introducing their new cars and what have you, their new trucks and so forth and so on.

Press gets up there and he timed it just right. Toyota is going to introduce now a hybrid Tundra, not right away, but we just want to see you and give you an idea as to how it's going to look. And so, he walks up to the Tundra, he pulls a hybrid sign out of his pocket, and it's a magnetic sign, and he puts it on the Tundra truck, just as everybody starts clicking their cameras. And so the next day, you're looking at the paper, you're thinking Toyota has a hybrid truck. Well, they didn't have it, so...

MARTIN: They had a hybrid sign.

Mr. BROWN: They had a hybrid sign. So, the next day when Press was showing the truck to some U.S. officials, I deliberately went up to the truck and took the sign off and said, Jim, when exactly are you going to introduce this truck, you know? But, you know, he was a smart PR guy. Toyota's PR people I think are the smartest in the world.

MARTIN: So, (unintelligible) you mentioned U.S. officials, was this a regulatory failure?

Mr. BROWN: No, what do you mean?

MARTIN: The current situation with these Toyota models. Is this a regulatory failure? You also mentioned in your online chat that you give a recall primer, as you put it. You say in the U.S., vehicles statutorily face federal recall only in matters of safety or possible clean air violations. But you say that customer fixes were often treated in the rubric of consumer satisfaction. You say that recall is a legal term that most, nearly 95 percent of recalls in the U.S. are voluntary.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, yeah. Most recalls are voluntary, meaning that the manufacturer makes the fix or attempts to make the fix without being forced to do so via the Justice Department or a court order. And that's usually how it's done. No one has any interest in going to court, you lose. If you are the manufacturer, you lose because even if you are proven to be right, the sale of a particular product just dissipates, it just goes away which, you know, happened to General Motors with the X car or it was another braking problem, (unintelligible) braking problem.

MARTIN: So, Warren, you routinely review car and you make buyer recommendations, what are you telling folks about Toyota cars now?

Mr. BROWN: Toyota does have good quality. All I have been saying is that they don't have perfect quality anymore than anyone else. I have driven BMWs that had problems, Mercedes Benz cars that have problems. So, these cars are made by human beings. Do you know any human being without a problem?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Good point. Washington Post car columnist Warren Brown, he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. We'll have links to all of the pieces, the online chat, the Web sites that we mentioned in our conversation at our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Warren, thanks again.

Mr. BROWN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: One of these days you'll come out to your shell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, Harvard hoop star Jeremy Lin opens up about having a slightly unusual profile in basketball world.

Mr. JEREMY LIN (Basketball Player, Harvard University): In America, basketball is predominantly for black and white people. And people aren't used to it and people don't expect it and I think, in general, Asian-Americans are looked down upon on the basketball court.

MARTIN: Shattering racial stereotypes one jump shot at a time. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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