Another day, another Prius recall report
Today brings another unsourced report from another Japanese media outlet that Toyota is preparing a recall of its high-profile hybrid, the 2010 Prius, to take care of complaints from drivers that the vehicle's brakes are squishy.
Today's report comes from Japan's Kyodo news agency. It reports, though does not identify its source, that the Japanese auto giant will recall 270,000 Priuses on Tuesday. The company has not confirmed the report.
Last week's report came from Japanese news outlet Nikkei, and its number was 160,000 Priuses. The company last week denied that report.
Over the weekend, however, Toyota said it is working on a plan to fix the Prius brakes and would announce something this week.
The problem in a nutshell: The Prius, like other hybrids, uses an innovative braking system known as "regenerative braking" that has an electronic and more conventional hydraulic braking system. When the Prius switches from one system to another, sometimes over bumpy roads, there is a momentary feeling of squishiness in the brakes. Toyota says the brakes are fine and if you keep applying them, the vehicle will brake. Of course, that's not what a number of the more than 100 complaints by 2010 Prius owners to NHTSA have said, so Toyota has a problem on its hands.
So here's what's probably going on: Automakers understandably hate to issue recalls. Recalls are the last-ditch resort because (a) they are so expensive, (b) they kill your public image, (c) they may not have diagnosed the problem accurately and the recall won't work, and (d) a lot of people will not bring their recalled vehicles in to be fixed because they are busy or they don't think the problem is that bad.
Toyota has likely been trying to figure out if this brake squishiness is a real mechanical problem that is the result of a design flaw or if it's a perception problem that can be fixed with a software change that will make the brakes feel firmer.
Then, the automaker has been trying to figure out whether it's a systemic problem on all the company's assembly lines -- maybe, because it's been installing a software fix on recently produced Prius brakes (an issue, by the way, that Ford hybrids have, as well) -- or whether it's isolated to a few assembly plants.
Then, Toyota is trying to figure out if this is a safety issue or a perception issue. Make no mistake -- automakers run a cost calculus on recalls, weighing the potential hazard of a situation (and that includes the potential for class-action lawsuits, which Toyota is already facing) against the cost of the recall.
Here's a good academic study on the production cost vs. liability cost of the Ford Pinto's exploding gas tank.
For Johnson & Johnson, which faced eight deaths in Chicago in the early '80s because a never-apprehended villain poisoned the company's Tylenol with cyanide, the choice was simple: Our product is killing people. We need to take all Tylenol off the shelves everywhere, immediately.
Toyota's choice is not so simple. No deaths have been attributed to the squishy Prius brakes and only four crashes are alleged to have happened because of them. But the P.R. hit Toyota is taking is massive.
If the automaker chooses to execute a recall, it wants to run the cheapest recall possible that will fix the problem, i.e, a software fix versus ripping out the entire brake assembly.
Toyota has a lot of parts in motion right now, as it tries to figure out what to do about its 2010 Prius, which has been the automaker's halo vehicle -- the car that is meant to embody all that is best about Toyota. That's why you're seeing this drip-drip-drip unsourced reports on the future of the Prius. It's not an easy choice Toyota faces.
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February 8, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
Categories: Corporations | Tags: Ford Pinto, Prius, Toyota, Toyota recall update, toyota recall model and years
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