COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

How GM, Toyota responded to massive recalls

Having been among the first to accuse Toyota of covering up its unintended acceleration problem, I thought it appropriate to look into GM’s recall for faulty ignition switches. Each is an example of corporate malfeasance, each caused deaths that could have been prevented and each company handled the issue differently.

General Motors was terribly remiss in not reacting to problems that began many years ago. The company knew of a problem with the ignition switch that would turn off the engine, disable the power steering, power brakes and airbag deployment. The switch would fail if there was too much weight from the key rings with several keys attached.

Although the company was aware of the problem, it never implemented a known solution.

In addition, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency responsible for monitoring safety defects in automobiles, never asked for a recall after receiving hundreds of complaints. (NHTSA’s incompetence and malfeasance is well documented at safetyresearch.net.)

Thirteen lives were lost, possibly many more. Unlike Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem, the cause was known, reproducible and simple to solve. We don’t know where in the company’s bureaucracy the issue got lost and buried. Clearly it was not one that encouraged reporting bad news or adding a few cents to the cost of a car. Safety at GM was not job one, to paraphrase another car company’s motto.

Shop foreman John Chapman installs a new ignition switch on a 2005 Saturn Ion in Michigan. Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg News

When the issue was recently exposed, GM immediately admitted fault and addressed the problem head on. The company suspended some of the engineers involved and apologized, something Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, says hasn't happened for decades.

In contrast, the cause of Toyota’s problem was more difficult to identify. But rather than admit that it could have been caused by inherent design defects in the electronics and software, or that they just didn’t know what caused the problem, the company immediately ruled that out, and attributed it to sticky pedals, floor mats and driver error. Conveniently, those were fixes that were easy to implement.

Toyota then attacked technical, academic and industry experts who offered credible theories, as well as evidence put forth by NASA engineers pointing to electronic and software causes. They instituted a massive public relations campaign to assure the public that all was well and they were safe. That included Toyota’s president and CEO, and James Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, who both lied to Congress, stating that electronics and software were not responsible, contrary to what we learned later.

In contrast, Mary Barra, CEO of GM, acted quickly in taking responsibility for the defective ignition switches and GM has recalled nearly 3 million cars to repair them. Those with defects were informed their cars have the problem and owners will get the cars fixed.

She fired 15 workers, many executives, after an internal inquiry into the incident.

“Some were removed because of what we consider misconduct or incompetence, others have been relieved because they simply didn’t do enough,” Barra said. “They didn’t take responsibility. They didn’t act with a sense of urgency.”

“Numerous individuals did not accept any responsibility to drive our organization to understand what was truly happening,” she said. “The report highlights a company that operated in silos, with a number of individuals looking for reasons not to act, instead of finding ways to protect our customers.”

So while GM owners can be assured of their cars are no longer dangerous to drive, Toyota owners cannot. Their cars will not be retrofitted with safety fixes and millions remain subject to unintended acceleration.

Some may say that both companies’ behaviors are equally bad, and they may have a good point. Neither one’s behavior is admirable or defensible. But now when we buy a vehicle, we can judge how each company responded when they were caught, and use that to predict future behavior. One company admitted fault and the other covered up. But then, I’d much rather find a manufacturer that doesn’t need to be caught to do the right thing.

And while these companies express regret to their customers, that hasn’t been reflected in their opposition to another bill relating to car safety, a congressional bill to prohibit the renting and loaning of recalled cars.

The Safe Rental Car Act of 2013 bill was filed last May, supported by car rental companies, and was unanimously passed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. But it has advanced no further, because of opposition from the automotive manufacturers and dealers.

Recall that the cause of death of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, was unintended acceleration driving a Lexus ES350 loaner car in Santee.

The bottom line is no one is looking out to protect the public from life-threatening automotive defects. Certainly not these two manufacturers, nor the NHTSA.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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