Safety panel: Toyota should listen more to customers

Toyota management gave too little weight to feedback from customers, regulators and independent rating agencies, and centered too much control in its Japanese headquarters, according to the report of a special review panel convened after complaints of unintended acceleration forced the automaker to recall millions of cars.

The panel, chaired by former U.S. Transportation secretary Rodney Slater, reported that the company apparently did not apply some of its principles of continuous improvement “as quickly and thoroughly as it could have in investigating and seeking out the root causes of customer complaints” about problems such as unintended acceleration.

Members of the panel said they acted independently, but they were paid by Toyota for their work, and the amount of those payments is unknown.

“We all negotiated relationships independently with Toyota regarding our roles on the panel,” Slater said in a call with reporters Monday morning. “Those are subject to a confidentiality agreement.”

One of the most prominent complaints about Toyota before it started the recalls is that it ignored years of reports from consumers that their vehicles were speeding out of control. Many of them were filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but the automaker appeared not to have heeded them.

“The complaints that are filed with NHTSA are a mishmash,” said panel member Brian O’Neill, former president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But “Toyota didn’t really dig into these complaints early on. . . . As messy as those data are, companies have to pay attention to them.”

Although Toyota officials have pledged to refocus on safety, there are lingering concerns over whether the company has satisfactorily identified the causes of the numerous complaints of unintended acceleration.

The company has acknowledged that rug mats could have trapped the accelerator in some instances and that the pedals could sometimes be sticky. But some critics suspect that problems with electronic throttles are at the root of some of the complaints.

“Over the past year, Toyota has learned a great deal from listening to the Panel’s valuable counsel,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda said in a statement Monday. “Their advice has been reflected in the meaningful steps we’ve taken to give our North American operations more autonomy and become an even more safety-focused and responsive company. Now, the Panel has given us further insights into how we can best achieve our vision of exceeding customer expectations with the safest and most responsible vehicles.”

In February, NASA investigators rejected claims that electronic defects caused Toyota cars and trucks to accelerate out of control. And tomorrow, Edmunds.com, the automotive Web site, is set to announce at a safety conference that no one has won the contest it launched last year inviting contestants to identify other causes of unintended acceleration.

“The report confirms our view that Toyota’s culture — one that works well in times of stability — left it uniquely vulnerable to a fast-moving crisis, such as the safety issues that enveloped the company last year,” said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com. “But anyone hoping that this report would help settle the debate around causes of unintended acceleration will be disappointed.”

Peter Whoriskey is a staff writer for The Washington Post handling investigations of financial and economic topics. You can email him at peter.whoriskey@washpost.com.
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