Toyota has taken a lot of heat in recent months, primarily for their failure to promptly disclose known problems with their accelerator pedal assemblies. A new report from the American Association for Justice, designed to highlight the real world benefits gained from litigation against automakers, points out several “smoking guns” from other automaker that you may not be aware of.
Everyone knows about the problems with Ford’s Pinto and it’s propensity to burst into flames when struck from behind, but how many know that a similar problem existed with late 1970s Chevy Malibus? Their gas tank was prone to fire in the event of a rear-end collision, just like the Pinto. Chevrolet was aware of the problem, but calculated that a redesign would cost $8.40 per vehicle manufactured. Paying restitution to the families of the anticipated 500 fatalities would cost only $2.40 per car. Chevy opted not to redesign to Malibu, until litigation forced manufacturers to build gas tanks that could withstand a substantial rear impact.
Automatic transmissions manufactured by both Ford and Chrysler in the 1970s and 1980s would occasionally indicate ‘Park’, when the transmission was really located just outside of ‘Reverse’. A sudden jolt, such as a door closing, could be enough to move the transmission into Reverse, putting the vehicle in motion if the motor was running. Some 90 injuries (some fatal) were attributed to this defect, and an interoffice Ford memo indicated that engineers were aware of the problem as early as 1971.
The problem resurfaced at Chrysler in the 1990s. In 1994, Chrysler safety managers advised installing a shift interlock that required a driver to depress the brake before a car could be shifted out of Park. Chrysler’s executives rejected the request, as it would have added an additional $9 per vehicle manufactured.
Front seats were perhaps the weakest part of any vehicle, particularly in the event of a rear end collision. While stronger seat designs were available, they weren’t mandated under crash test safety regulations. GM, for example, demonstrated a seat that cost an additional $1 more per unit, but could have reduced rear-impact injury levels by as much as 90%. The lack of NHTSA standards was especially evident in some vehicles manufactured by Chrysler: the 1996 Chrysler Sebring front seats could withstand 3,300 pounds of force, yet the 1997 Dodge Ram pickup seats could withstand just 605 pounds of force.
The report is interesting reading, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of its findings. The Firestone tire delamination problem is documented, but I never believed the manufacturer was entirely at fault for their tire failures. Any product, if not used within its design specification, can and will eventually fail. Drivers need to be more aware of the condition of their vehicles, and improvements like tire pressure monitoring go a long way towards increasing safety. What we eventually learn from Toyota’s recent troubles will result in safer cars from all manufacturers.