Despite mounting evidence impli-cating drivers as the wild card in a series of unintended-acceleration allegations that have batteredMotor Corp.'s image, the auto maker still considers the phenomenon a problem of its own making.
“The safe driving environment consists of the drivers and the (auto) makers and the infrastructures,”President and CEO Akio Toyoda says. “Those three parties should cooperate.”
Toyoda says the auto maker that bears his name will continue to probe cases linking some of its models with unexpected behaviors that have tarnished Toyota's sterling reputation for high quality.
Toyoda's remarks come during briefings in Japan with journalists and analysts who were given unprecedented access to the auto maker's testing facilities in Nagoya and Toyota City.
The group, including Ward's, saw how Toyota investigated complaints, as well as new technologies that promise to mitigate the aftermath of driver errors, should they occur.
Underscoring the auto maker's efforts to address complaints is a new global quality-control process that uses customer expectations as a benchmark, instead of internal Toyota standards.
In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., in conjunction with NASA, is examining Toyota's electronic throttle-control system for design flaws. And the National Academy of Science is poised to conduct an additional probe on the heels of a third-party review commissioned by the auto maker that showed no defects.
Toyota has completed its own investigation of 3,600 reported incidents of unintended-acceleration in the U.S. and none reveals a single ETC failure, suggesting drivers mistakenly hit their vehicles' accelerator pedals instead of braking.
Specifically, an informed source tells Ward's preliminary data supplied by NHTSA shows advanced age is a common factor in a significant number of the Toyota cases, some of which involved collisions.
The auto maker declines comment, in keeping with a position outlined by Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki, who says the company is obliged to protect drivers from their own errors.
“The car should actually detect the possible danger and have a pre-crash safety system,” says Sasaki, whose portfolio of responsibilities includes quality and customer service.
“Even though a customer makes a mistake while using the vehicle, the damage should be minimized. If the customer makes a mistake, we never want to blame the customer. That's our attitude.”
Toyota is working on a crash-avoidance system that detects pedestrians and automatically stops the vehicle before a collision occurs.
Toyoda says the auto maker's ultimate goal is to eliminate traffic fatalities.
But the quality-control initiative will not threaten Toyota's growth or speed-to-market, says Takeshi Uchiyamada, director and executive vice president in charge of product management and R&D.
The strategy, which adds a layer of management at the research-and-development level and intensifies a customer-oriented product-development focus, will add about four weeks to Toyota's average 24-month lead time.
But the extra work is not expected to delay any programs, Uchiyamada claims.
“We will grow,” Uchiyamada says. But that growth will be measured against the auto maker's capacity, suggesting ambition contributed to the dubious honor of topping the recall list in the U.S.
Last year, the world's largest auto maker had more safety recalls in the U.S. than any of its competitors. And through June, it was on pace to lead the pack again with 10 campaigns that had implications for 3.6 million cars and light trucks.
In the last 15 years, Toyota has seen its U.S. market share double. But its 15% share through June represents a loss of nearly two points from recall-riddled 2009.
Toyota in June paid a $16.4 million civil fine in the U.S. for not reporting a sticky accelerator problem to NHTSA in a timely manner. Ill-fitting floor mats were the chief cause, but the auto maker found motorists in regions prone to harsh winters did things such as deploying mats rubber-side up, which can interfere with normal accelerator function.
Toyota's quality focus means supplier expertise will be sought “more than ever” to ensure top quality, Uchiyamada says.
Suppliers will be held to a higher level of accountability and be included earlier in the product-development process.
Expect Toyota to adjust schedules to avoid delayed launches, Uchiyamada says.
Adding a layer of management generally is not associated with improved efficiency, but Katsutoshi Sakata, general manager-design quality innovation, defends the move. He says it will help Toyota avoid costly mistakes.
“We can make the appropriate decisions at the appropriate time,” Sakata says.
Toyota is trying to respond more quickly to customer concerns, says Dino Triantafyllos, vice president-quality division and regional product-safety, Toyota Motor Engineering and Mfg. North America Inc.
“We're just getting it done, and (Toyota is) paying for it,” Triantafyllos says, adding Toyota is determined to avoid the foot-dragging that has cost the auto maker in fines and status.
Toyota reports progress on the recall front. Nearly 30% of 2 million recalled vehicles have been inspected, while 78% of the 1.7 million vehicles affected by sticky accelerators have been returned to Toyota dealers and repaired, if required.
Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Toyota Canada Inc. announce plans for a network of field offices to collect data to inform product decisions.
The offices will open within 12 months in New York; San Francisco; Jacksonville, FL; Houston; Denver; Toronto and Calgary, AB.