Paul Horrell02 February 2010

Toyota recall: what it really means

How big is the human danger? And how much will Toyota's reputation suffer?

Toyota recall

Toyota’s recall programme, for two separate issues that can possibly jam throttles open, has now gone pretty much global. It’s getting towards nine million vehicles.

Two questions. Most important, how big is the human danger? Less important, but still a real biggie, is how much will Toyota’s reputation suffer.

It’s hard to be exact about the human peril. But from the reports of the number of accidents attributable to the two separate Toyota accelerator issues, it seems to be about 15 deaths in the US, though none as far as we know in Europe. That is carnage. Lots of separate human disasters.

But we’re talking about 10 million cars, driven on average for three years or more. Frankly, the actual risk is far smaller than the risk from inattention, a badly fixed load, texting on the move, wrong tyre pressures or any number of other things under the driver’s control.

And for Toyota? The cost of pulling all those millions of cars off the road and into dealers, and modifying the throttles, is bad enough in itself. Billions, but bearable. There will also be short-term sales losses, as the firm delays selling cars that have to be modified. In the US, GM and other manufacturers have started special offers for Toyota owners who want to trade in. Dog eat dog.

But the long-term loss of reputation could be the real knockout punch for Toyota. To put it crudely, for many people the only reason to buy a Toyota is that it’s safe and reliable. Without that, what does Toyota have?

It isn’t actually impossible that Toyota will survive more or less intact. When Mercedes had the A-class rollover crisis, it acted quickly, pulled the car, redesigned it, and kept faith with customers.

Toyota must do the same. It must treat its customers like royalty. And it must be open and honest.

Here’s how it all went, so far.

The first recall was last year in the US. A few tragically fatal accidents, and a few more less serious ones, were caused by Toyota throttles sticking open. Toyota said it was because badly fitted floor mats had jammed the pedals. (European cars weren’t affected, because they have clips to hold the mats in place.)

Toyota told American drivers to leave the mats in the boot until they could go to the dealer to have a shorter pedal fitted, and hooks to keep the mats in place. That was 4.2 million vehicles.

But once an issue comes to the surface, people start looking more closely. For several weeks, the Los Angeles Times ran stories claiming that Toyota had other issues with ‘unintended acceleration’. It also alleged that Toyota had covered up related complaints from owners. Toyota denies this.

Then on Boxing Day, a Toyota Avalon crashed into a lake in Texas, killing everyone inside. The floor mats were found in the wreck’s boot. It may well be that the previous accidents were due to US-spec floor mats, but there was something else going on as well.

On January 21, Toyota issued a recall for 2.3 million vehicles in the US. It also stopped selling cars of the same models. The reason is a bush in the accelerator linkage that might get sticky and rough over time, preventing the spring from returning the pedal to idle. Luckily, this is a gradual thing, so an attentive driver, once alert to the possibility, can feel if their car is likely to be affected shortly.

By the end of January, that recall had spread worldwide, affecting 4.4 million vehicles, including up to 1.8 million across Europe. But there have been no reported incidents in Europe. Japanese-made vehicles have a different supplier and aren’t recalled, by the way.

The cars sold in the UK are certain ones within these ranges:

Aygo (Feb 2005 – Aug 2009)

iQ (Nov 2008 – Nov 2009)
Yaris (Nov 2005 – Sep 2009)
Auris (Oct 2006 – 5 Jan 2010)

Corolla (Oct 2006 – Dec 2009)
Verso (Feb 2009 – 5 Jan 2010)

Avensis (Nov 2008 – Dec 2009)
RAV4 (Nov 2005 – Nov 2009)

And there’s more info on the Toyota UK website.

As an extra precaution, Toyota announced on January 11 that a modification to the drive-by-wire system will be fitted to all its cars made globally from 2011, and many before that. It means even if the accelerator is jammed wide open, if the driver presses the brake then the engine power will be cut back to idle.

Paul Horrell

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