Toyota Recall – The Best Built Cars In The World?

by Stephen O'Leary on 11/02/10

On the 26th of September, 2007, Toyota Motor Corporation recalled 55,000 optional “all-weather” floor mats available in the Lexus ES350 and Toyota Camry.

As Car and Driver Magazine reported at the time, “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a consumer advisory warning that the heavy-duty rubber floor mats, if unsecured, could move forward and press the gas pedal, which could cause the car to accelerate uncontrollably.”

O’Leary Analytics has researched the coverage the event generated in the online media at the time. The graph below is based on a global search – over 115,000 online news producing sources are referenced. It is clear the announcement of the recall caused a level of media interest. However – it was brief, and it’s scale small. No more than 100 articles each day for a four-day period, and then the story disappeared. Potential damage to The Best Built Cars In The World? Minimal.

Fast forward to 28th August 2009. In San Diego, California, a two-car collision – involving a Lexus dealer provided loaner ES 350 – kills four people.

The NHTSA released a safety investigation report on 25th October 2009. It found the accident vehicle was wrongly fitted with all-weather rubber floor mats. However, of greater concern was the brake hardware showed signs of heavy braking consistent with a stuck accelerator pedal. NHTSA investigators also recovered the accident vehicle’s accelerator pedal, which was still “bonded” to the SUV floor mat. This report is detailed in full by the LA Times.

On 2nd November 2009, Toyota announced a voluntary recall of 3.8 million vehicles, with a letter sent to owners asking them to remove the driver floor mat and not replace it with any other type of mat.

As in 2007, this announcement caused a flurry of media coverage on the day, but as the graph below illustrates, no more than 200 stories were published on any day, and within four days, the story had again gone quiet. This despite the fact that 3.8 million vehicles were affected.

For now, this was also a US only story – the only models included in the recall were in North America. This is reflected in the pie chat below – US coverage dominates all other mentions over the 10 day period.

The next step in the story arrived on 26th November 2009, when Toyota extended the existing floor mat recall to include the brake override system. This increased the number of affected vehicles to 4.2 million.

However, it was on 21st January 2010 the story took a turn for the worse for Toyota. They announced a second recall – this time to deal with the problem of a “sticky” accelerator pedals. This recall included 2.3 million vehicles sold in the US, 1.8 million vehicles in Europe and 75,000 in China. Five days later Toyota announced they were suspending sales for selected vehicles.

By now, the mainstream online media were covering this story in detail, as Toyota moved from one recall to another.

Another 10 day snapshot – this time around the second recall – illustrates how coverage of the story increased dramatically.

By now, coverage was only going in one direction.

A few days ago, on 8th February 2010 Toyota announced their third recall – globally, over 436,000 hybrid vehicles were recalled following 200 reports of Prius brake glitches. A day later, in the US, 7,300 Camry vehicles were recalled over potential brake tube problems.

Each day, a new story emerges, and how Toyota deals with the next few weeks will be crucial. The graph below is a snapshot of the coverage in February to date. This month, on average, there has been over 5,000 articles published, each day, online, mentioning the Toyota Recall.

Wikipedia, as always, provides an excellent insight into the timeline of the Toyota Recall story, and also makes reference to the media coverage surrounding it.

They make particular reference to David Champion, director of autombile testing at Consumer Reports. On February 4, 2010, he suggested the media coverage was disproportionate to the problem: “When you look at the statistics we are putting an awful lot of effort on a very small risk,” noting that the frequency of unintended acceleration complaints was approximately 1 in 10,000 out of 20 million Toyotas on the road.

Despite this assertion, and even if the risk remains small, every time Toyota announce a new recall, it provides new copy for journalists across the world. Until these recalls stop, and confidence in Toyota is restored, don’t expect to see the daily trend in media coverage changing.

About the Analysis:

  • The key criteria when conducting the media research into this story was to ensure any irrelevant coverage was omitted from the results.
  • Initially, we looked for articles that mentioned Toyota and any extension of the word “recall” – recalled, recalling, etc. However, we found that this was bringing back irrelevant mentions. For example, in the opening paragraph, someone may have “recalled” a funny story, and three paragraphs later mentioned they drove a Toyota.
  • Instead, we included a rule in the search – Toyota and Recall* had to appear within 15 words of each other, i.e. in the same sentence. This dramatically improved the search relevance, and we were able to pin point articles which specifically referred to the recall in question.

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