Is Anyone Responsible? On the Toyota Recall Action

9/6/2010

What was the real cause of Toyota’s recent recall? The largest action of this kind in the history of the automobile, Toyota’s unprecedented recall involved several millions cars worldwide.

Not all the relevant technological facts are clear. The first recall action was a result of reported cases of uncontrolled acceleration of Toyota cars, after which the company claimed that floor mats were trapping the accelerator pedal. Later, a more serious cause was discovered, a construction flaw in the pedal itself, prompting a second recall. However, even this does not seem to account for all reported cases of uncontrolled acceleration, as consumers have claimed that their cars accelerate out of control even after having been recalled. It now seems very probable that the problem is not mechanical at all, but due to defects in the wiring. Investigations are still ongoing but whatever the result, a question can be raised as to whether Toyota can guarantee the safety of all the highly complex and computerized functions built into their cars. If the possibility of a fundamental and life-threatening flaw remains, Toyota cars cannot legitimately and in good conscience be called “safe.”

From a management perspective, doubts about Toyota also remain. Many customers feel that the company acted in a prompt and considerate way, and they feel their trust has been restored. Others, however, are more critical. An important question here is when exactly did Toyota first know of the existence of a serious flaw? Was the recall related to the floor mats which originally the company truly believed was the issue and recalled their cars to repair? Or did Toyota neglect to make a more serious and general investigation? Were safety issues taken seriously enough?

Questions of this kind are difficult to answer, mostly because it is near impossible to assign clear-cut responsibilities in the production of a high-tech product such as a modern car. “Is anyone responsible at all?” one might ask, with a skeptical sigh. The way in which technology is produced is highly complex. Who in the company could have had doubts about the safety of accelerators, and when? What counts as sufficient evidence to say that a mechanism is “unsafe”? At what point should a company take action? We also need to consider what regulatory procedures should be in place to trigger an appropriate response to the discovery of design defects. This is an issue of policy-making which will be responsive to ethical standards such as customer safety, transparency, and accountability.

Some commentators take the easy route. From an outside perspective, it is not difficult to assert that companies are only interested in making a profit, and therefore they minimize safety tests as much as possible. But not only are such statements too facile, they do not help us explain why the technical failures happen the way they do. Most likely it will never be possible to identify a single person who knowingly and voluntarily ordered safety standards to be lower than they should be. We rather have to assume that the company as a whole worked in a way that made it possible to overlook certain flaws. Maybe financial pressure slowly changed some of the critical processes in the organization? Maybe the company developed certain habits and perceptions in their personnel which did not allow for adequate consideration of safety concerns? This might have happened more or less unknowingly, over time. In this case the company is still liable for what happened, and must assume legal responsibility for the reparation of the damage. But no one seems to be able or willing to take personal responsibility for causing the flaw. In a certain sense, “it just happened.”

Hence, the Toyota case raises a more general question: do large and complex organizations allow for responsible action at all? From an ethical point of view we cannot give up this idea, even if the evidence that “it just happened” seems to be strong. Habits and perceptions, even if they are built up unknowingly and over time, are based on human agency. They are a product of the inner variability of human behavior, which means they can be changed and corrected through the same activity from which they emerged. In the strict sense nothing in human agency ever “just happens.” A case like Toyota’s should draw our attention to structures that slowly emerge in organizations and become so natural that alternatives seem non-existent, although they are not. It should also draw our attention to the manifold of factors that threaten and limit real human responsibility. Of course we should not assign responsibility arbitrarily, but we also cannot renounce the idea that there is human agency, decision-making, and therefore responsibility, even in highly technological and collaborative environments.

Any comments? Contact the author at msteinma@stevens.edu