Panel: Cultural Issues Affect Toyota Safety


During Toyota's problems with unintended acceleration in 2009 and 2010, the automaker created a seven-member North American Quality Advisory Panel chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, and comprising people from government, corporations, education and the non-profit world.

The panel focused on global and local management control, responses to problems and management responsibilities for quality and safety. "Toyota had developed a stellar reputation for building high-quality automobiles in part because of its extremely effective internal problem solving processes." But the report added that "Toyota should apply those principles to management decision-making processes more comprehensively."

The panel said Toyota had not kept a good balance between efforts to achieve economies of scale via centralized control of global far-flung operations and staying in touch with local operations in different regions. "Toyota was out of balance -- it centered too much control in Japan and gave its North American operations inadequate decision-making authority to handle quality and safety problems affecting vehicles in North America."



The company recently named a chief safety technology officer at the panel's suggestion. CEO Jeremy Anwyl, who has been assiduously following developments at Toyota and in the culture of safety in general -- and whose company has just concluded its first vehicle safety conference in Washington, D.C. -- says that the report makes a good case. "It confirms our view that Toyota's culture -- one that works well in times of stability -- left it uniquely vulnerable to a fast-moving crisis, such as the safety issues that enveloped the company last year."

Anwyl says the report doesn't say much about what caused accidental acceleration in some Toyota vehicles. He also says there's no hard experimental evidence from anywhere else that Toyota actually had a technical problem that needed fixing. Rather, he says, the propensity within the safety "culture" in the U.S. to mitigate human behavior as a factor in the safety or danger of machines compelled Toyota and government to behave as if a real, fixable, mechanical or electrical problem was at fault in accelerations, rather than problems that might have had a source in behavior -- such as stacking floor mats, thus increasing the risk of mats trapping a vehicle's gas pedal.

Last year, launched a contest dangling $1 million to anyone who could demonstrate, experimentally, that Toyota's unintended acceleration problems were inherently mechanical. The winner was to be crowned this week at Edmunds' Washington conference. Except there was no winner.

"Evidence has been piling up that unintended acceleration is not caused by a vehicle defect, and our contest result seems to be the final piece," he said in a statement. "Even with a million dollars motivating the best and brightest thinkers to study the issue, no one could demonstrate any novel and plausible cause for unintended acceleration." Anwyl also tells Marketing Daily that the issue is likely to do with consumer behavior, but that Toyota had no choice but to say it would find a mechanical source to a non-mechanical problem because it was incumbent upon them to take the blame.

"Culturally, we have an aversion to blaming the driver, but to improve the safety on our roads we need to recognize the role of the driver and engage the driver more fully."

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