March 8, 2010, 17:33:00 | NP Editor
Automobile recalls are inevitable, but today they are jumped on by those eager
to advance their own
By Dennis DesRosiers
In the past few weeks public outrage has been growing over major recalls at
Toyota, followed by
recalls last week by General Motors and Nissan. When will this stop? The short
answer is that it
won't. What the public needs to understand is that vehicles have become so
complex that it's
inevitable that every original equipment manufacturer (OEM) will eventually be
hit with a serious
As regulators push the envelope on a myriad of social-policy agenda items like
environment and fuel efficiency, while consumers continue to demand better and
these companies will have no choice but to make their vehicles even more
sophisticated. This is a
recipe for more huge recall situations, and no auto maker will be immune.
While the recalls won't stop, maybe our perspectives will have to change. In
fact, it's already
past time to put the brakes on the recall madness and the current media frenzy.
To that end, I
offer DesRosiers' 12-point All-Season Brake-the-Recall Madness Check List.
1. The U.S. is a legal-driven society and the lawyers see very deep pockets in
these OEMs. In the
case of Toyota there are over 40 class-action lawsuits and dozens of individual
almost all of the talking heads in the media who are blasting Toyota have been
lawyers involved in
litigation. Since Toyota still has billions in the bank these lawyers are
extremely motivated -
and they themselves have deep pockets to keep this going a very long time.
Closely related to this are some misperceptions about the impact of recalls.
One is that a recall
lowers the resale value of the affected products. I've been involved in legal
cases as an expert
witness and have found the opposite is true. I won't get into why, but in the
cases I've studied
the resale value of recalled vehicles goes up, not down. However, the public
and trial lawyers
believe the opposite.
2. Government in the United States is badly broken. This is problematic because
elected to do something. Since they are in a partisan stalemate on most issues
they need to send a
message back home that they are working hard for their elected base. Why not
beat up on an OEM?
With Toyota, all the right buttons are there ... safety, Japanese, the
appearance of backroom
deals, etc. So hold public hearings to spread the perception that the
legislators are protecting
the consumer. The Republicans also want to show that the National Highway
Administration failed, hoping to pin this on Barack Obama although the NHTSA has
malfunctioning for decades
3. All of society is entangled in a growing net of government regulations.
extremely expensive for the automotive sector so all vehicle companies get into
game - hiring brigades of lobbyists, finding and exploiting cracks in the
system, etc. Of course
every automaker works the system, because the system imposes huge costs. But
when a problem occurs,
the target is the automaker - not the system itself.
4. Most don't realize it but there are literally thousands of complaints filed
with regulators each
year on issues involving vehicles. The vast percentage turn out to be not
repeatable, leaving open
the question whether there was a problem with the car or the driver. Many
motorists just can't
admit or plain don't know that they were at fault. Pedal misapplication -
frantically pressing the
accelerator pedal, thinking it's the brake - is a recurring issue on most
brands. I would add that
poor emergency response by motorists is an even bigger problem. But elections
aren't won by
telling voters that they are bad drivers.
5. Consumers will not compromise on their desire to own the vehicles of their
dreams - and at an
ever lower cost. Toyota is the low-cost producer but a critical part of this
success lay in moving
to common components across its product range. Commonality of components means
that when trouble
occurs it affects millions of vehicles across many platforms. Thus the size of
6. The consumer who owns a vehicle that has been recalled sees this as an
opportunity to right all
wrongs. No vehicle is bulletproof. Virtually all OEMs are guilty of
under-delivering and when consumers realize this many of them seek revenge. So
when there is a
recall they pounce.
7. The American economy is still in a shambles, with very high unemployment. In
this type of
economy, the natural tendency is to go protectionist. Blame someone else, close
the borders, look
inwards. Toyota in particular is caught in this isolationist sentiment.
8. The Number One player is always a target. For generations it was General
Motors ... today it is
Toyota, joining McDonald's, Wal-Mart and the New York Yankees among highly
that many Americans love to hate. Toyota executives made some mistakes here as
steadfastly denied trying to be the biggest, when in fact everything they did
was to become Number
One. Including, it appears, getting away from their core manufacturing
9. Toyota and other offshore OEMs have caused a lot of pain in North America,
where 1.3 million
unionized auto manufacturing workers and about a million employees at car
dealers have lost their
livelihoods as overseas automakers beat up on the Detroit Three. So there is a
lot of pent-up hate
toward foreign nameplates.
10. Don't forget the unions. They have huge equity positions in GM and Chrysler,
and all of Ford is
unionized. These companies could benefit from Toyota's woes. Unions are likely
behind the scenes on Toyota and any other import-nameplate issue.
11. People die in vehicle crashes. Nothing is more stark than this. The vast
majority of road
deaths are caused by driver error, but that point is lost in the media. It's
human nature to want
to blame the machine. Death is dramatic and the media always seem to spotlight
the one out of a
thousand situations where the problem was definitely with the vehicle.
12. Finally, the United States government is a partial owner of two of Toyota's
competitors, GM and Chrysler, so the politicians have skin in the game and are
No one wants to touch this issue but it is the absolute most frequent question
I've been getting.
Everyone who talks to me believes this feeding frenzy is politically motivated,
and it is hard to
argue against this suspicion. Toyota executives have not used this as an excuse
and indeed have
publicly said they do not believe this is the case. But it will be interesting
to see if there are
hearings in Washington on the current GM recall.
All of this is not meant to let any OEM off the hook when it comes to vehicle
safety, or attempt to
be an apologist for the industry. There is blame to be distributed and indeed
any OEM that launches
a formal recall is in essence accepting blame. However, the most important issue
in any recall is
how it is handled with the customer base, and all the OEMs have demonstrated
over the years that
they take these problems very seriously.
Some have been accused of taking too much time to resolve specific situations,
but none of us know
exactly what is involved in identifying a recall issue and then fixing it.
There is a lot of
"hair" around this whole matter of recalls, and understanding some of this
might help paint the
picture a little differently than some might suspect.
Dennis DesRosiers is the president and founder, in 1985, of DesRosiers
Canada's leading auto market research firm.