Tuesday’s revelation that three Toyota Motor Corp. officials are under investigation for professional negligence over a delay in a vehicle recall highlights a dilemma for carmakers.

While the case serves as a harsh reminder to the automotive industry that failing to issue a timely recall can seriously damage a company’s image, such recalls, particularly if they are frequent, can do the same.

Japan’s recall system obliges manufacturers and importers to repair vehicles for design flaws or manufacturing defects that could pose a safety problem. Automakers that receive reports of defects are required to investigate and determine whether a recall is necessary.

But since the decision is left to the company, with no clear-cut standards as to when recalls must be made, automakers may issue them even if they are not sure if a defect is due to a design flaw.

“The case has hurt Toyota’s corporate image,” said automotive journalist Aritsune Tokudaiji. “This may cause people to lose trust in Toyota,” a company regarded as having high ethical standards.

Three Toyota officials in charge of quality control are alleged to have failed to issue a recall of Hilux Surf sport utility vehicles for eight years over a steering system defect that could cause loss of control. The recall was finally issued in October 2004.

Yasuhiro Matsumoto, a senior analyst at Shinsei Securities Co., said the Toyota case may prompt automakers to issue more recalls, particularly in light of coverups that surfaced in 2004 involving defective vehicles made by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and what is now Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Corp.

The number of vehicles involved in recalls in fiscal 2004 jumped 71.3 percent from the previous year to a record 7.57 million, according to the transport ministry. The surge was due in part to massive recalls by Mitsubishi Fuso and MMC after the coverups came to light.

But transport ministry and industry officials agree that the scandal that befell MMC and Mitsubishi Fuso made many automakers opt to play safe by quickly issuing recalls instead of running the risk of being exposed after hiding defects.

“There are many cases where it is difficult to decide whether to issue a recall,” Matsumoto said. “If you fail to promptly recall defective vehicles, it makes people think you are trying to conceal the defects.

“But if there are too many . . . recalls, it may lead people to suspect that the quality of cars is deteriorating.”

Automotive journalist Tokudaiji said the public should be aware that a car has about 30,000 parts that require a great deal of technology. This makes recalls inevitable.

“While Toyota’s case has served as a reminder to automakers, drivers should also understand that recalls are issued” to prevent accidents, he said.

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