We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of the horrific crash that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family when their Lexus sped out of control. The aftermath and investigation into the issue raised fears of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) in Toyota vehicles and lead to millions of vehicles being recalled for what Toyota said where problems with throttle entrapment due to the floor mats and stuck accelerator pedals.
Since last fall, Toyota dealers have serviced over half of all recalled vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting investigations into Toyota safety and operations, having fined the company for failing to report problems in a timely fashion. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate grilled the company in a string of televised hearings that added more insights to the unfolding story. Even Consumers Union weighed in and spoke before Congress, calling for significant changes in automotive safety.
So, where are we now one year later?
At over 4.8 million vehicles in the United States (almost 9 million worldwide), Toyota recalled more vehicles than any other automaker in 2009. But it wasn’t the only company keeping its dealerships busy. Ford recalled over 4.5 million vehicles in the United States. These two manufacturers represented more than half of the total 16.4 million vehicles recalled last year. So far, 2010 hasn’t fared much better for Toyota. Up to August, the company has recalled close to the same number of vehicles as last year--4.7 million. In comparison, Ford has only about 70,000 vehicles recalled, while General Motors has recalled over 2.8 million so far this year.
Despite these large figures, 2009 wasn’t the worst year for recalls. However, it was probably the most high-profile year for recalls, and most damaging for a company, since the Firestone tire issue 10 years ago.
According to data from NHTSA, 2004 had the largest number of vehicles recalled, involving over 30 million vehicles and 600 separate recall announcements. In looking at the past 44 years of recalls (since 1966), 2008 had the most recall announcements at 684. There were 492 vehicle recalls last year.
So, what happens next?
While recalls are not ideal--we prefer to see cars made safe to begin with--they will continue to be used to inform consumers of possible flaws with their vehicles, and as we’ve seen so far this year, manufacturers are now quickly reporting problems to NHTSA and taking swift action. Hopefully, this trend will enhance vehicle safety, lead to better customer service from manufacturers, and encourage consumers to better respond to recall announcements.
In the year ahead, we will discover the results from the several Toyota SUA-related investigations by NHTSA, NASA, and the National Academy of Sciences, and the automaker says it will spread smart-throttle technology (aka brake override) throughout its 2011 models. Here’s hoping that all of these investigations, and the spotlight on NHTSA, make for a calmer and safer future for Toyota owners.—Liza Barth