How Sweet It Is

February 4th, 2010

By Larry Ennis

In recent years U.S. auto makers have from time to time had to recall their products for numerous reasons. Some of the recalls were used to address serious issues, but far more were to address less than life-threatening items.

Probably the most well-remembered were both fuel tank related issues. The vehicles involved were the Ford Pinto and some models of GM produced pick-up trucks. The public as a rule blamed both the company and the UAW assembly line workers.

Having been at a GM truck plant and worked directly with engineers on fuel tank testing and installations, I saw first-hand the efforts to correct fuel tank problems. Granted, this tank problem was a design flaw that placed it in a location outside the protection of the frame. The placement was a concern long before the public was made aware of the danger.

The government, in its effort to promote safety, dictates by way of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) certain vehicle safety standards. A great number of these safety standards are based on crash survival and construction integrity of the particular vehicle under test. Most tests at the time used either 20 or 40 miles per hour as a baseline speed to determine allowable damage for passenger survival.

In the case of the trucks in question, hard side impacts caused the tanks to leak and sometimes rupture. General Motors engineers notified the company as well as the NHTSA that there was concern about about the placement of the fuel tanks and that steps should be taken to “beef up” the area where the tank was mounted. Sadly, many people lost their lives before efforts got under way to correct the lethal fuel tank dilemma.

GM failed to listen to concerns about the dangerous location of the fuel tank in what was the most popular model in their Chevrolet pick-up truck line. The company did allow fixes on other trucks that were using the same cab/frame configuration. The decision was profit driven. A suitable protective cage around the tank would have added a cost of $24.00 dollars to each truck. That amount was more than GM was willing to part with. Cost analysis indicated that the most the company could spend on each truck to correct the flaw was $2.02. GM opted to not follow the advice of their engineers, a very bad choice to say the least. The resulting cost in court-awarded money to those who died or suffered injuries turned out to far exceed the $24.00 per truck fix.

So it was with mixed feelings when I learned of the Toyota recall. My first concern is for the human element and the safety of the driving public. Something that is unusual is that this latest recall hearkens back to an earlier recall in which similar incidents occurred but the culprit was said to be the carpeting on the driver’s side. We’re now led to believe a different set of circumstances is causing essentially the same problem. The remedy this time is the placement of a piece of tubing on the accelerator pedal which, according to Toyota, should fix the problem. Cause number three is now being passed around. Now Toyota is faced with the possibility that a bad fuel metering microcomputer may be causing the world’s leading auto builder some headaches.

Until recently Toyota has managed to steer clear of media-announced recalls of their products, something that in recent times hasn’t worked for the big three auto makers. Bad press is never good for sales, and Toyota kept the lid on several problems to ward off bad publicity. The stigma that too many recalls could cause would hurt the image that Toyota has created for its products.

Proof positive that what goes round comes round. How sweet it is to see that all lemons don’t originate in Detroit.

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4 Responses to “How Sweet It Is”

  1. larry |

    This is a follow-up to my Toyota piece. If this is the true cause of Toyota’s problems, it could become a worldwide problem with major financial consequences for Toyota.

  2. wine blog |

    Thing is Toyota just had a very successful earnings report. They are selling more cars then ever.

  3. Tom |

    Toyota will overcome this problem. People have long recognized the quality of their products, and everyone knows that mistakes can be made by anyone. What probably matters more at this point is how they respond, and they seem to be doing fairly well. The Big Boss just publicly apologized today, and that’s a pretty big deal for the Japanese.

    One thing I want to add — I’m in the U.S. two or three times a year for a month or so each time. When I’m there, I rent cars. Sometimes they’re Japanese or Korean, but usually they’re American. After driving a lot of different cars for weeks at a time over the past few years, I have to say that the quality of American cars is better than in the past (and note that these are fleet vehicles). They aren’t better than the Japanese, but they’re close to equal. That wasn’t always true.

  4. Brian Bagent |

    I drove a Camry for years. It was reliable and got about 35 mpg on the road. Problem is that the Japanese do not make vehicles with people like me in mind. I haven’t been in a Japanese-made care that was comfortable, or after about an hour wasn’t just downright painful for me to drive or ride in.

    Of course, our legislators don’t seem to want that, either. If I want something I can get into rather than strapping on and wearing, I have to buy an SUV/truck or large sedan. While SUVs and trucks don’t have to meet CAFE, the cost of trucks and SUVs has to make up for the low sales of the CAFE-compliant cars that they do make.

    As far as I can remember, all, or nearly all, small cars with an American lable are sold at a loss. That loss is taken out on people like me that do not fit in them. It is legislation, aimed at the mythical green house gas solution, that is driving this. It’s easy enough to say “they should make small cars that people want to buy,” but it really isn’t anybody’s business but the auto manufacturers what they make or how much they profit per unit.

    As Tom said, Toyota is a well-run business, and they have their market. This glitch is unlikely to affect their bottom line very much, if at all. I wish them success, but I won’t be buying any more of their vehicles because they simply do not suit my physical requirements.

    For those that don’t know, I’m 6’6″ and 217 pounds. I imagine that I will be driving large trucks, Caddies, or Lincolns the rest of my life.

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