Taken For a Ride: Can We Trust Car Makers?

There’s a disturbing trend in car news recently: scandals and cover-ups. One of the most notable and largest in scale is of course the Volkswagen emissions scandal—it first broke in September 2015, and has continued to expand.

Last month, the fallout broadened to Audi and Porsche (both part of the VW group), whose German offices were raided. At the same time, a top Porsche executive who worked at Audi in 2015 was arrested on suspicion of criminal advertising and fraud.

Volkswagen may seem like corporate greed incarnate, but they’re not the only car company behaving badly. Far from it.

At the end of last year, Nissan confessed that uncertified technicians had been signing off final inspections on their cars for at least 20 years, and they recalled 1.2 million cars in the Japanese market.

Subaru has admitted to falsifying fuel economy claims from 2012 to 2017, and acknowledged that they may have even been manipulating mileage data as early as 2002.

And then Mitsubishi, not to be outdone, revealed that it had been falsifying fuel economy tests for 25 years. (It may or may not have been secretly proud to beat VW, Subaru, and Nissan at something. Anything.)

Blood on their hands

These emissions and fuel economy-related scandals aren’t even the worst of auto industry offenses. While the environmental impact of emissions fraud makes it far from a victimless crime, car companies have infamously chosen production schedules and profits over safety in a number of cases throughout automotive history. Here are a few of the most notable:

Pinto

In 1971, Ford released the Pinto. As the first American subcompact, it was intended to compete with fuel-efficient European imports like the Volkswagen Beetle.

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The Pinto was to weigh no more than 2,000 pounds, and cost no more than $2,000, and it was basically rushed into production. The Pinto—and getting it to market regardless of unrealistic goals—was an obsession for Lee Iacocca, a young executive who’d rapidly risen through the ranks to become president of Ford. If there were any problems or delays with the Pinto project, it was well-known to his staff that he didn’t want to hear them. Even if they were literally a matter of life and death. (In fact, Iacocca—the same one who’s long been revered as a brilliant business icon and leader—was known to say “safety doesn’t sell.”)

In keeping with this disregard for safety, the Pinto’s production schedule cut corners. It was just 25 months—just a bit more than half the usual 43 month time span to take a new car from conception to production.

In pre-production safety tests, Ford engineers discovered that the Pinto had a tendency to explode. Extremely easily. A rear-end collision would cause the fuel tank to rupture and the car to burst into flames. Ford crunched the numbers, and weighed the cost of delaying production against the projected costs of lawsuits from injuries and deaths that would result from the deadly safety defect. A simple cost-benefit analysis. They could make the Pinto fuel tank safe for $11 per car, which—including production delays, engineering the changes, and the parts themselves—would cost about $113 million in total. Payouts for fiery crashes, devastating burn injuries, and loss of human lives, on the other hand, were a comparative bargain at an estimated $49 million. The Pinto went to production as planned and was delivered on time, to an unsuspecting public.

Ultimately, reports of deaths due to the Pinto gas tank defect have been reported by some sources to be as low as 27, others as high as 500. Regardless of the exact number, Ford’s intention in choosing to release the Pinto (and then not issuing a safety recall until 7 years later) remains a clear choice of profit over human life.

Ford Explorer/Firestone tires: a deadly combination

If you think Ford might have learned any sort of ethical lesson from the Pinto, you’d be mistaken. In 1990, Ford brought the Explorer SUV to market. Subsequently released internal memos and emails show that Ford’s engineers were struggling with a number of elements that affected the Explorer’s stability, prior to its release. To make matters worse, the Explorer was fitted with Firestone Wilderness AT tires, which would turn out to be plagued by a high instance of tread separations—resulting in blowouts.

In 2001, Firestone’s CEO voiced “significant concerns” about the safety of the Ford Explorer,  effectively ending Firestone’s 95-year relationship with Ford. The next day, Ford announced that it would replace 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires (those tires, deemed safe by Firestone, had been excluded from Firestone’s 6.5 million-tire recall earlier in the year) because it didn’t trust the performance of those tires to keep Ford’s customers safe.

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After 174 deaths and more than 700 injuries (most of them occurring as a result of accidents in Explorers fitted with Firestone Wilderness AT tires), investigators believed that both companies were at fault. Explorers equipped with other tires were involved in fewer crashes. The Firestone Wilderness AT, on other vehicles, had lower instances of tread separation. It seems that individually, the Explorer and the Wilderness AT were acceptably safe—but together they made for a disastrous combination.

For their parts, Firestone and Ford became increasingly accusatory, with each side seemingly more concerned with blaming the other than they were about safety or getting dangerous vehicles/tires off the road.

Toyota: floor mats and accelerators

Toyota, often considered one of the more trusted car companies (likely because of its reputation for exceptional reliability) is also guilty of a deadly cover-up.

In 2007, Mark Saylor—an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer—called 911 as he approached an intersection, reporting that his Lexus was traveling at over 100 miles an hour and wouldn’t slow down. Tragically, he and his family—who were also in the car—were killed in a crash while still on the 911 call. Saylor’s accelerator had become entrapped by an incompatible floor mat.

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The Saylor family’s Lexus (photo credit: Gomez Law Firm)

Instead of addressing the problem comprehensively and ensuring the safety of their cars, Toyota assured drivers that there was no need to worry—the cases of unintended acceleration were all caused by floor mats becoming stuck on accelerators, for which they’d issued a recall and provided a remedy, or driver error. But other drivers had already begun complaining of similar problems that were not the result of floor mats or driver fault.

Toyota later—much later, in 2010—admitted that the floor mat recalls did not cover all the cars they knew were in danger, and that they concealed another cause of unintended acceleration that they’d discovered during their investigation: “sticky” accelerators pedals.

89 deaths and 57 injuries have been attributed to unintended acceleration problems with Toyotas from 2000 to 2010. (Over 6,200 complaints have been in total.)

Why?

Is it just straight-up corporate greed? Or have unreasonable market demands and shareholder expectations made delivering on them untenable? Are companies discouraging communication and problem-solving by perpetuating a hierarchical, keep-your-mouth-shut culture? Are companies unclear in communicating priorities or objectives, allowing employees to become fixated on the wrong things, or take them too literally?

It seems likely that it’s a combination of these factors.

In the case of the Pinto, for example, the goals were extremely aggressive on all fronts: lighter, cheaper, and on a shorter production timeline than Ford had undertaken ever before. Top management (Iacocca) made it clear that he didn’t want to hear about any problems or concerns, and that he certainly didn’t consider safety a priority.

Subaru’s employees cited three reasons for falsifying their emissions and fuel economy data: First, senior staff ordered junior staff to do it, and second, Subaru measures values in large increments of time or vehicles—so inspectors adjusted data to make it more consistent overall, whether better or worse than the actual numbers. Finally, the inspectors lacked the level of training to understand how to adjust data (some adjustments are allowed) within acceptable bounds.

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Subaru CEO Yasuyuki Yoshinaga bows in apology for falsified emissions and fuel economy data

Subaru hopes to redefine its corporate culture to be less authoritarian, more adaptive, and less adherent to the way things have always been done.

Toyota’s chief legal officer said, as part of its plan to move forward after the unintended acceleration scandal, “We have made fundamental changes across our global operations to become a more responsive company.”

Whether manufacturers will actually change their behavior in the ways they’ve vowed, remains to be seen—but hopefully the internet and social media will empower car owners to more easily expose and identify safety defects in cars, and force carmakers to acknowledge and address them before additional lives are put at risk.

 

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