Any recall response lag now scrutinized

Media seen making Prius into bigger woe

by Kazuaki Nagata

The recall of Toyota Motor Corp.’s popular Prius hybrid earlier this month sparked criticism that the company was slow to respond to customers and failed to heed their views amid the automaker’s various product safety issues in the U.S.

Some experts said that while Toyota indeed mishandled the Prius issue, it is questionable whether the model’s brake problem itself was something requiring a recall if the automaker hadn’t been in its current fix.

Automotive journalist Hiroshi Matsushita said the brake system problem basically poses no severe threat to regular driving safety and can be alleviated by stepping down firmly on the brake pedal in cases where the brakes aren’t working well.

But “as Toyota has been at the center of the media spotlight these days, I think the company had no choice but to issue a recall,” Matsushita said.

Toyota issued a recall for 223,068 hybrids in Japan — the latest Prius model, the luxury Lexus HS250h, the Sai compact and the plug-in Prius hybrid — to fix the problem.

Because of a glitch in the control program of the antilock brake system, braking action could be weak on bumpy or icy roads, requiring longer distances to stop.

The Prius will stop 0.06 second later, or 70 cm farther ahead, than a Toyota with a conventional system if it is running at 20 kph on an icy road and if the driver steps lightly on the brake pedal.

While the recall of Toyota’s signature vehicle has drawn much media attention, recalls of vehicles are actually quite common in Japan.

According to the transport ministry, there were 295 recall cases in the April-March period of fiscal 2008.

Automakers issue recalls for various problems.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. issued a recall of the Lancer Evolution last September because the way its fuel return pipe was attached to the engine could cause the pipe to crack and fuel to leak due to engine vibration.

A ministry official working at a division in charge of the vehicle recall said the Prius brake system error has to do with the characteristics of hybrid cars and is a rare case, noting there have been recalls related with the brake systems of conventional cars.

Toyota reportedly found the hybrid brake system error in November and issued the recall in February.

The ministry official said issuing a recall about three months after finding a problem is not a slow response, as automakers generally take even more time.

However, the ministry will consider revising the recall system in consideration of customers’ viewpoints, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara said Friday during the transport committee meeting in the Diet.

“Recalls have been continuously issued not only by Toyota but by other makers. The reason why the problem has become so big is because it was the Prius” and other problems the company is facing in the U.S., said Masahiro Fukuda, a researcher involved with the domestic car market at Nagoya-based Fourin Inc., which studies the world’s car industry.

While Matsushita and Fukuda agreed the Toyota recalls have received excessive media coverage, they both said the carmaker mishandled the situation.

“I imagine that Toyota has its story, but the company should have been more sensitive to the public’s voice,” Fukuda said.

“The first thing was that (Toyota President) Akio Toyoda should have appeared earlier to explain,” and it was also bad that the company was fixing the brake problem of cars produced starting in January and did not disclose the information quickly.

Meanwhile, when it comes to recalls, Matsuhita pointed out that Japanese media tend to label such vehicles as flawed, so the public generally has a negative image about recalls.

He added there are concerns that automotive engineers could become gun-shy and lose their motivation.

Maehara has said that although Toyota failed to consider the viewpoint of customers, a recall itself is not a bad thing.

“I don’t want people to have a negative image about recalls. Instead, I think companies that issue recalls should be seen as acting responsibly as manufacturers, and I’d hope those companies receive positive reactions from the public,” Maehara told reporters Feb 9.