Special Coverage

Toyota's Safety Crisis

PLYMOUTH, MI – The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. widens its investigation of sticky accelerators and poorly fitting floor mats beyond Toyota Motor Corp., asking other auto makers for consumer feedback on the problems.

“The government has come back to all the OEMs and asked for (feedback) on those challenges” facing Toyota, says Jeff Luke, global chief engineer-fullsize trucks at General Motors Co.

Typically, auto makers take it upon themselves to report to NHTSA any fatality or serious injury a vehicle’s equipment may have caused, as directed under the 2000 TREAD Act.

But the law, which Congress quickly passed after the Firestone tire debacle at Ford Motor Co., says NHTSA also can request the information to assist in the identification of possible defects.

“We’re providing whatever the government asks for, according to the TREAD Act,” Luke tells Ward’s during an engineering preview here of the new-for-’11 Chevy Silverado Heavy Duty pickup.

Earlier today Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized a second time for worrying customers about unintended acceleration. The problem has been linked to Toyota accelerators and floor mats and prompted the longtime quality leader to recall more than 9.1 million vehicles in the U.S. and Europe over the last two weeks.

Toyoda, newly seated atop the world’s No.1 auto maker and the grandson of its founder, did not say whether Toyota would recall its highly acclaimed Toyota Prius hybrid sedan, which has come under scrutiny for braking problems.

However, he did say the auto maker would redouble its quality-control efforts, in part by forming a committee Toyoda, himself, will lead.

Analysts point to the auto maker’s rapid growth in recent years as one reason behind its spate of quality issues. Speaking on background, a former domestic OEM safety executive told Ward’s at the onset of Toyota’s problems that quality issues occurred at his former employer when the validation process was rushed.

But Luke says GM management – itself focused more closely than ever on improving lagging quality scores as the auto maker tries to win back customers in the wake of its bankruptcy – has not ordered him to intensify or enlarge his validation efforts on new products.

“Nobody has said anything to me specifically,” says Luke, whose trucks have accounted for 3 million units of production over the last three years. “But I’m always watching what is happening around me.

“I’ve been watching very closely the Toyota experience,’ he adds, “so I (ask) myself and my team, ‘OK, where am I on these specifics? Are there things I need to go back in and make sure I’m OK on?”

No GM trucks have been linked to accelerator or floor-mat problems. However, the Pontiac Vibe – built by Toyota at their former joint-venture assembly plant in Fremont, CA – was implicated for poorly fitting floor mats. GM says 99,000 Vibes have been recalled.

GM also has received several complaints about allegedly sticky accelerator pedals on the Vibe, but says the car’s brakes will override unintended acceleration. None of the complaints involved a crash or injury.

The Vibe no longer is in production because GM phased out its Pontiac brand.

The controversy is enough to motivate Luke, who in recent days reviewed GM truck floor mats to ensure the auto maker does not have a problem.

“If you look at our floor mats, I’ve designed them so they have long nibs on them – this long,” he says, spreading apart his thumb index finger. “And they won’t move. When it is installed properly, it will not move. You cannot push that thing.

“So I go back and I look at my stuff,” he says. “But my boss never came to me and said, ‘Toyota is in hot water; you need to double efforts,’ or anything like that. I already have my team on high alert during the validation process.”

Luke says his team also doubled back on its electronic throttle control, where worn sensors are suspected to have been causing Toyota’s sticky accelerator problems.

“I look at my stuff, and I (ask), ‘Are we OK on our side?’ And I think my counterparts in other companies would be doing the same. It’s only the responsible thing to do.”

Luke says a typical GM truck program, such as its all-new Silverado HD set for unveiling at next week’s Chicago Auto Show, undergoes some 4 million vehicle-equivalent miles of testing. Real-world testing begins roughly 1.5 years ahead of production launch.

jamend@wardsauto.com