The National Catholic Review
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Making money is always job one for car manufacturers, but the nature of the product they bring to market entails special ethical responsibility. Protecting profit margins and preserving brand reputation can never be morally justified when people’s lives and safety are at stake; but the developing story of Toyota and its secretive, and at times possibly obstructionist, handling of a widespread problem with its vehicles’ uncontrolled acceleration shows that poor priorities are also simply bad business.

When Toyota Motors recruited two high-level bureaucrats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help manage its relationship with that federal oversight agency, it may have had an eye on cost-savings related to automobile recalls, not laying the groundwork for a great case study for a business ethics textbook. But just a few years later, that strategy has resulted not in corporate savings but in a historic recall of as many as 10 million cars, along with frozen sales and assembly lines for the international automotive giant. Hundreds of accidents and 52 deaths so far have been attributed to the unexplained acceleration now implicated in incidents involving Prius, Camry, Lexus and other Toyota models.

Prominent Toyota executives blame the carmaker’s woes on too-rapid expansion, which distracted its attention from quality control, but the role played by former employees of the U.S. traffic safety department cannot be ignored and warrants further scrutiny. Other car manufacturers also employ onetime N.H.S.T.A. staff members, but it appears that only Toyota has gone so far as to use such employees specifically to work on managing the company’s relations with the agency.

As early as 2004 the agency was looking carefully at accelerator problems experienced by Toyota Camry owners. A lawsuit in 2008 stemming from an unintended acceleration-related death revealed an agency decision to limit the scope of its investigation. That crucial decision came right after a former N.H.T.S.A. employee took a job with Toyota and essentially began negotiating for the company with his previous co-workers. In fact Bloomberg News reports that at least four investigations by the agency into unintended acceleration by Toyota models were favorably reduced or thwarted completely with the help of the former regulators hired by the automaker. Those aborted investigations succeeded in warding off expensive recalls, but they apparently did not do anything to make the cars safer.

Consumers expect that all reasonable efforts will be made to protect their safety, particularly when accumulating evidence suggests there is a problem. Toyota has much to do to win back public esteem for its previously highly regarded products, and the federal government and the N.H.T.S.A. also need to take a time-out for an examination of institutional conscience. The safety administration needs to determine precisely how influential former agency employees working at Toyota were on recall decisions and whether a stronger firewall needs to be established between industry and government safety investigators. Congress needs to assess whether the comparatively small staff of the N.H.S.T.A. is adequate for the job and able to keep up with rapidly changing automobile technology. Out of a total number of 635 agency employees, only 57 are in enforcement, and only 21 of these are investigators.

Federal regulators serve the common good. Most do so with integrity and dedication. Their reliability should be beyond reproach. Federal bureaucracies cannot be allowed to evolve into training facilities for future corporate corner-cutters. The public trust and people’s lives are too much to risk. A too cozy relationship between corporate managers and federal regulators can lead to dangerous conflicts of interest. This may be one revolving door between government and industry worth jamming permanently.

Even as those structural problems are addressed, the basic question of the accelerator safety needs to be answered. A similar problem has now been reported among a number of other car manufacturers. It could be that our computer-reliant autos may be too sophisticated for our own good. Though Toyota executives emphatically deny there is a design flaw in Toyota’s electronic throttle control system, a senior Toyota sales manager testifying before Congress in February admitted that the recall, which replaces floor mats and alters a gas pedal assembly, had responded satisfactorily to as few as 30 percent of the acceleration complaints. Owners of some allegedly repaired cars are reporting that the acceleration problem persists.

That is not good news for Toyota or its current customers, but it may be for future car buyers. Toyota’s woes offer a powerful cautionary tale for corporate executives tempted to prop up profit margins by discounting safety with a strategy designed to elude government oversight.

Comments

COMPANY | 3/24/2010 - 2:29pm
Wow! This article serves as an analogy to the issues with our institutionalized Catholic Church and it's structure.
Just substitute "Church, clergy, bishops, hierarchy" for Toyota, executives, and their misgivings and you have a pertinent definition and description for the mess we are in with our Church and it's "leaders".
My words substituted for the initial paragraph of the editorial: Bringing faith is always the job for the Catholic clergy and the nature of the "product" they provide entails special ethical responsibility. Preserving reputation can NEVER be morally justified when people"s (children's) moral lives, minds and souls are at stake; but the emergence of the Church's secretive and obstructionist handling of the widespread problem with it's uncontrolled abuse and cover-up reveals poor priorities and immoral performance. (end para)
When the American problem surfaced in 2002, Rome, the magisterium, Office of the Doctrine of the Faith and prelates through out the world dismissed it as a reflection of liberal, secularized standards of Americans....then Ireland, Germany and now the Netherlands. Throw in Mexico (Marciel) and his consideration for elevation to sainthood by the Pope while concurrently, Cardinal Ratzinger was stonewalling Tom Doyle's charges of seminarian abuse throught Marciel's regime, and you have a similar "image saving" activity by high level church executives....Analagous to Toyota, the players are different but the process is the same.....I'd label it deceit, possibly corruption.
Toyota is an organization in turmoil caused by unethical and immoral actions throughout the corporate executive structure including the CEO. The Catholic Church likewise has perpetrated immoral and unethical actions by it's "executives" and needs to come before the Universal Lay Congress (we the people), explain how they allowed this problem to perpetuate, how they enabled, how they participated, and most importantly, what specific actions will be taken to expunge the perpetrators from their "executive" responsibilities. Instead of rewarding clerics with plush Rome assignments, I recommend they all be sent to Haiti to administer to the flock with of course, lay oversight to ensure they never repeat their tragic past.
JOHN WALTON MR | 3/17/2010 - 10:20am

Most "sudden acceleration" issues arise from the driver confusing the gas and brake pedals.


This doesn't excuse Toyota - what I have found in dealing with very large corporations is that as the supply chain is extended, responsibility gets diffused.


Hey - isn't there a message about this in Centissimus Annus?  Assign responsibility to the lowest "capable" functional level of the organization - a lesson which US Bishops should heed in prosyltizing for "subsidiarity".


Oh, and parenthetically, the formerly "Big-3" auto companies were actually health care plans with wheels.

Joy Wagner | 3/16/2010 - 4:18pm

As your article points out, our car electronics have far outstriped the Manufacturers' and Regulators ability to troubleshoot the complexity of the glitsches that crop up. Now Toyota and the Media are besmirching the reputation of a Prius driver who experienced a similar problem. Perhaps he'd be hailed as a hero if he died in a violent crash? Anyone who has dealt with electronics knows that problems can be intermittent and difficult to reproduce and/or diagnose. One thing certain is that removing placemats and installing mechanical fixes on a gas pedal won't fix an electronic problem. It's high time that the Regulators and Manufacturers get "out of bed" with each other and put the Consumer's safety first. Thank you for your insightful article.

Greta Green | 3/13/2010 - 12:02am

I will take a toyota over any american built care like Chevy and Ford.  I have had over 20 toyota's and have yet to take one in for repair.  I have had 5 chevy's, 1 Ford, and 1 Chrysler and all were in on a frequent basis for repair and recall.  I will buy another toyota tomorrow.  Anything I can do to purchase a car that is not made by the union workers who are pushing this horrible healthcare bill down our throats that they got an exemption from using or paying for is fine by me.  I will not buy anything that involves union labor after this healthcare fiasco and their role in complicity of behind the doors deal with Barry and the democrats.  Shame on them. 

C Walter Mattingly | 3/12/2010 - 5:07pm

This problem is widespread through our governmental and political institutions. When Tom Daschle left his position as senate leader, he almost immediately took a position as a multimillion dollar lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. It is likely that the industry owes much to Mr Daschle for its good fortune in avoiding pricing competition from imported drugs because of Mr Daschle's representation of their interests to his senate underlings and his protege Barrack Obama, much to the disadvantage of citizens reliant upon those drugs as well as the national debt.

GERALD BRADLEY | 3/12/2010 - 3:47pm

The 'topic' is autos, but the 'issues' are accountability and transparence from the  top down. Can the readers of America think of several other organizations that haven't learned these virtues?

James Collins | 3/12/2010 - 2:28pm

I agree with your comments regarding Toyota's ethical response to the problems their cars are having in the field. This should come as no surprise. The Japanese government and the Japanese auto manufacturers have for decades closed their markets to foreign manufacturers and specifically to American cars. They have a very complicated and expensive process for those who would sell cars in their market which effectively freezes everyone out. To utilize full freedom in the U. S. market and deny their market to our companies is not ethical either.

Patrick Eicker | 3/12/2010 - 12:54pm
You say "It could be that our computer-reliant autos may be too sophisticated for our own good."

Well you know why they're computer-reliant, don't you? So they can be greener. You're on the horns of a dilemma.

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