Until recently, Toyota has done everything it can to minimize the impact of its embarrassing string of safety violations and product recalls by admitting fault and forking over government fines without protest. But once Congress began discussing massive auto safety overhaul bills, the car industry removed the tail from between its legs and is starting to fight back.
Last week, the Detroit News reported that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) have teamed up to demand more accountability from Detroit’s massive but fledgling car industry. “Recent Toyota recalls reveal lapses in our auto safety monitoring system — and additional areas where we can do much better by the American consumer,” said Rockefeller.
In addition to lifting the maximum penalty of $16.4 million that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can fine safety violators, the bill would impose a new fee on new car sales to fund an increase in NHTSA budget. And Senators have suggested introducing a “black box” features in all new cars to record the 60 seconds leading up to an accident.
The automobile industry is set to oppose portions of the safety bills, which executives say could raise the cost of vehicles by thousands of dollars. While the industry supports the idea of the black box, for example, they warn that it could drastically inflate car prices. “The typical airplane black box costs $22,000, which is close to the average price of a new car,” said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Toyota, General Motors, Chrysler, and a handful of other major companies.
The Alliance has also announced support for widening brake override systems, which is already included in most new models. But it remains unclear whether the industry will welcome heightened government oversight. The new tax could fund an increase in safety enforcers. As Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota pointed out at Tuesday’s hearing, the NHTSA employed twice as many enforcement officers in 1980 as it does today.
Rockefeller and Waxman seek to fix this imbalance. The recalls “underscore the need to ensure (NHTSA) has the resources, expertise and authority it needs to protect consumers from vehicle safety,” says Waxman. Time to see if Toyota will play ball.