Toyota Troubles Continue With Prius Recall

Toyota has announced a global recall for its popular Prius line of cars. This comes after the automobile leader has been under fire for faulty brakes and other issues in several lines of its cars. For more on what the Prius recall will mean for Toyota, host Michel Martin speaks with Joan Claybrook, she headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Carter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

The bad news keeps on rolling in about automaker Toyota. Today, the company announced the latest in a series of recalls. This time it's 437,000 hybrid vehicles, including its best-selling Prius.

Toyota has recalled nearly eight million vehicles worldwide in recent months due to a malfunction that causes accelerators to stick or get caught by floor mats. And as the recalls mount, so does criticism of Toyota's response.

Joining us to talk more about this is Joan Claybrook. She is the former head of the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She served under President Carter. She's also a well-known consumer advocate. She's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: You know, Toyota built a reputation on quality and reliable vehicles that, well, that - what was the phrase, cheap to keep or something like that. And so, I'm just wondering why these issues don't seem to have surfaced before. Has something changed in the quality of the vehicles or is it perhaps that they were not noticed before?

MARTIN: Well, I think it's more than that. The problem is, is that starting in around 2000, a number of companies started going to electronic accelerators and throttles, and they're very complicated. And this issue has been known by Toyota, this sudden acceleration issue has been known by Toyota since about 2004 when it started getting sued. And it kept going and the Department of Transportation getting to know about it, and then they notified Toyota. Toyota's well aware of this. They've gotten many, many consumer complaints.

And as the - one of the top officials at Toyota said yesterday, if Toyota had only paid attention to its consumer complaints, it wouldn't be in this position. And that was someone from the Japanese government.

MARTIN: Why didn't they pay attention to these complaints? It seems curious after all the history around auto safety, all the advocacy work that you and others have done over the years. And it just seems curious in this day and age that something as serious as accelerator or braking problems were not taken seriously.

MARTIN: Well, I agree with you. It's one of the most serious types of defects that you can have, and both the government and Toyota should have paid very close and immediate attention to this. But I think that for a company that has built its reputation on reliability and quality to admit that it had a big software problem is very, very difficult. And they thought that it might harm or undermine consumer confidence in the company, and that - I guess they didn't think that it was frequent enough that they would have to do a major recall.

MARTIN: And what about the government, the U.S. government response? Obviously there are other governments involved here since this is a global company, but what about the U.S. government response? Is there something that this government could have done sooner to have prevented these problems or to call attention to these problems?

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has enormous authority to investigate problems, and they opened six investigations and they closed six investigations. Only one of them resulted in a small recall of 55,000 Lexus vehicles. And the agency should have used subpoena power. It should have not been heavily lobbied and believe what Toyota had to say.

Some former employees of that agency were now working for Toyota and they knew how the agency defined defects and they tried to narrow the scope, not give them information. And so it's most unfortunate. They had many consumer complaints. They had testing authority. They could go to all the suppliers and the dealers and the company and get information. They have endless authority to have found...

MARTIN: But why do you think they didn't use it? Is it - do you think that they were subject to the sway of Toyota's advocacy? Is that your sense?

MARTIN: I think that that's it. First of all, it's very difficult to define. And when you're trying to figure out what the problem is, generally the agency wants to know what it is. And the problem with software and this move into electronics is that it's very, very difficult to identify exactly what the problem is.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask you about how you think people who own these vehicles or driving these vehicles should respond? One of the things we were curious about is that Toyota has made these announcements, it's been very much in the mainstream media, if you want to call that. But what about people who perhaps don't follow mainstream news outlets, are not the first owner, but maybe the second or third owner of a vehicle who perhaps use primary languages other than English? How will they know what to do or what's going on?

MARTIN: Well, what the companies are required to do under the law is to gather the current names and addresses of current owners. And they do this by going to a company called R.L. Polk and Company that gathers all the current owner data from the motor vehicle administrators. So they pretty much have the most recent owners, even if they're the second and third owners. And they do send a letter out in English, but I guess that someone would have to translate it for them. I don't think that they send them in other languages or even know to do that.

MARTIN: And finally, are you satisfied that the current responses are adequate?

MARTIN: No. No, no, no. I think that what Toyota is doing with the sudden acceleration, this is the so-called floor mat issue - which is I believe the most dangerous of these recalls - is that they're putting a brake override system kind of quietly when they replace the floor mat. And that's the real fix because you have to have something that allows the car to be stopped by the driver.

And right now, the brakes are not overridden by the - cannot override the accelerator. And so, this would change the software and allow the brakes to override the accelerator. So, even though the car is racing in the engine, you can still stop the car.

So, what people should do if they haven't gotten this correction is they should put it in neutral, as soon as this happens, if they absolutely cannot get it in neutral they should turn off the ignition but not take the key out. That will lock the steering wheel. They will lose power assist for the brakes and the steering when they turn the engine off, but it's better than having the car out of control.

MARTIN: Joan Claybrook is the former head of the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She served under President Carter. She is also a former president of the nonprofit organization Public Citizen. She was kind enough to join us today from her home office. We thank you so much for speaking with us, and we hope we'll speak again.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

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