Friday, February 26, 2010

 

THE TROJAN HORSE IN THE CLOSET

Chapter seven of Ralph Nader's ground-breaking 1965 best seller is titled: "Damn the driver and spare the car." Forty-five years later and amidst the fall-out from Toyota's unprecedented 8 million plus vehicle re-call; Nader's chapter sounds all too familiar...

Those of my generation will know, of course, that Nader's book: "Unsafe At Any Speed - The designed-in dangers of the American automobile", shocked the world just as the North American boomer generation were about the purchase their first cars. "Nader's Raiders", as the hundreds of young activists inspired by the book became known, forced North American auto makers and Governments to confess and account for their collusion, abuse of power, and lack of regard for the safety and well being of millions of drivers and their passengers.

Lest I digress; Another of the book's keystone chapters - "The one car accident" - exposed the havoc and carnage of the Chevrolet "Corvair" (1960-63). Nader's work also led to the demise of the Ford "Pinto" and most importantly to the legislated requirement for seat-belts and other standard safety devices.

Which brings me back to Toyota. If the "Corvair" problem was its one-car accident factor (The suspension made it roll-over), Toyota's acceleration issue frequently involves collision's with others, which is all the more tragic. Koua Fong Lee is spending 8 years in a Minnesota jail after his out of control "Camry" killed 3 people in a rear-end collision with an Oldsmobile. Now even the District Attorney who successfully prosecuted Mr. Lee for vehicular homicide thinks the case was a miscarriage of justice.

A long time friend and university teacher who's opinion I value described Toyota's initial intransigence and its current responses as..."the classic issues management blunder of the 21st century". Toyota representatives; officials; and executives all the way up to the founder's grandson, the current President Akio Toyota, are sticking to the company script despite growing concerns and anecdotal evidence that the problem may be related to the electronics of the fuel injection systems rather than anything mechanical. Lest we forget: Toyota's track record in diagnosing the problem(s) is less than stellar: Ten months ago it blamed the runaway cars on faulty carpets getting caught-up in the accelerator pedal.

The Toyota Motor Company, now the world's largest auto manufacturer, was about five years old when Ralph Nader wrote "Unsafe At Any Speed". It's true that some in the American Congress may be on a crusade against Japanese auto makers now that the U.S. government is essentially the largest bailout shareholder in General-Motors and Chrysler...but perhaps that may be the most compelling reason for Toyota to remain beyond reproach in its response and corrective actions. There are many who believe the Asian auto sector is not quite there yet!

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