Friday Rant: Toyota's Recalls, Manufacturing Liability and Personal Responsibility

The news cycle on Toyota's recalls as been relentless -- and I suppose this is appropriate given the automotive manufacturer chaos of the past year coupled with western culture's pre-occupation with product safety. But I can't help but feel -- and I know this isn't going to be popular -- that the whole thing is a bit over blown.

I'm not saying that the Transportation Safety Administrations of the world's countries over-reach, or that OSHA shouldn't exist, or that Toyota and all manufacturers shouldn't be accountable to their customers to produce safe, reliable products. But what about personal responsibility? Driving a vehicle is a perfect case in point. We have come to expect that so long as we have our cars, vans and light trucks serviced at the manufacturer's recommended intervals that nothing will malfunction. We turn the key, hold the wheel, operate the accelerator and brake peddles and off we go. Just as we must observe the rules of the road, we must also be as vigilant of Murphy's Law: Typically defined as "Anything that can go wrong will [or may] go wrong". For the sake of argument let's also include Wikipedia's adjunct definition which includes "a reflection of the mathematical idea that, given a sufficiently long time, an event which is possible (non-zero probability) will almost surely take place."

I must also disclose that I prefer older cars. I own three and the newest in my fleet was made in 1989 and has traveled 186,000 miles. That being said, stuff happens -- and we need to be less coddled and more on guard regardless of what we drive. Until 1970, most cars had carburetors, a mechanical device that mixed fuel and air that was directly linked to the accelerator pedal. They were less reliable than modern fuel injection systems and frequently malfunctioned as a result of changing weather. Back then, sudden acceleration was called engine racing and it occurred periodically along with stalling. My point here is that just because newer vehicles are more reliable, we have a responsibility to be prepared for mishaps, both mechanical and electronic.

Shunning such responsibility has contributed to many Toyota owners refusing to drive their cars and others flocking to class action law suits because their car's resale value has been downgraded. An article in the Chicago Tribune this week reports that "the Kelley Blue Book, considered the value bible for anyone looking to sell a vehicle on the open market, has downgraded the value of recalled Toyotas multiple times in the last week, including the once-coveted 2010 Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid on the market." And goes on to say "P. Tim Howard, a Northeastern University law professor leading a group of about 20 law firms in 16 states, aims to bring a national class-action lawsuit against Toyota, alleging the vehicle recalls have collectively erased between $2 billion and $4 billion in value for car owners."

Toyota has a long and impressive record for safety and reliability on the world market and they will recover from this current crisis -- as will the used value of their vehicles. Meanwhile, check your tires before you drive, have any hint of a malfunction (on any brand vehicle) checked out immediately, and watch out for those pesky winter pot holes. And if you're in the market for a used car, I hear there are some big arbitrage opportunities with used Toyotas.

Full disclosure: I have never owned stock in Toyota or any other vehicle manufacturer

William Busch

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