Toyota Motor Corp. is too insular and doesn't do a good job of incorporating feedback from customers or outside testing agencies into its car designs, according to a panel the company set up last year after a series of safety recalls.
The seven-member panel also said Toyota should appoint executives who are responsible for safety and should give more decision-making power to regional executives outside Japan.
Toyota set up the panel last year after it recalled millions of vehicles for safety defects, including sticky accelerator pedals. U.S. government testing has since indicated that the problems weren't caused by electronics or software, but most likely by ill-fitting floor mats or driver error.
The panel said the recalls exposed problems in Toyota's structure that made the company slow to identify safety issues and react to them. Toyota initially viewed customer complaints about sticky pedals with skepticism and defensiveness, the report said, and has had an adversarial relationship with federal regulators. There was also poor communication between various regions even though they shared vehicle parts.
Brian O'Neill, a panel member and the former president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance-funded group that conducts car safety tests, said data from dealers, customers, government regulators and other test groups can be cumbersome and difficult to decipher. But it's crucial to pay attention to it and use it to track potential defects and improve design.
"I think Toyota understands that now, but I don't think they understood that early on in Japan," O'Neill said Monday in a conference call with media. "There's more to listening to customers than filling out checklists."
O'Neill said in 2001, Toyota got complaints about vibration and other issues in its newly redesigned Camry. When the next-generation Camry came out five years later, there were similar complaints, indicating the company didn't alter the production process, design or testing after the first round of complaints.
Panel members said that when they began their work, Toyota had no executives responsible for vehicle safety, and instead saw safety as something everyone should consider. The panel recommended that Toyota appoint executives who would be responsible for setting and meeting safety goals and handling safety issues as they arose in various markets.
Toyota says it's already following some of the recommendations, including naming chief safety officers in North America and Japan. It has also extended the development time of its vehicles to allow more testing.
"Over the past year, Toyota has learned a great deal from listening to the panel's valuable counsel," Toyota President Akio Toyoda said in a statement. Toyoda participated in a two-hour meeting with the panel by phone shortly after the March 11 earthquake in Japan, according to the panel's chairman, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.
Improving its processes will help the company deal with problems more quickly, panel members said. In the meantime, members expressed confidence in Toyota's quality.
"Any machine built by any company, as long as they employ humans, is going to be imperfect. The record for Toyota is that safety issues are so infrequent that statistically, one should feel very comfortable driving a Toyota," said panel member Norman Augustine, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.