The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

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Profits, Not Safety

Mar 1, 2010

Three different congressional committees are holding hearings and investigations into cases of sudden acceleration of Toyota cars, which have killed at least 34 people. U.S. politicians have put on a show, politely calling on the carpet Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, as well as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

For at least nine years, corporate executives at Toyota stonewalled complaints of Toyota cars suddenly accelerating out of control, often blaming the crashes on “driver error.” The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) closed nine separate investigations, without any conclusion.

But last August, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family were killed in the crash of a 2009 Lexus. The doomed family’s last moments were captured in a 911 emergency call, as the CHIP officer made frantic efforts to brake the car, which had reached speeds estimated at over 120 miles per hour. This made headlines. Toyota was hard-pressed to blame this crash on driver error.

Profits First, Safety Last

Toyota soon issued a recall to fix the floor mats of five million cars, saying that they might get caught under the gas pedal. However, some cars that crashed had no floor mats. Toyota issued a second recall to fix sticky accelerator pedals on another 2.4 million cars.

Many doubt these recalls will solve the problem. They say that acceleration complaints skyrocketed after Toyota switched from mechanical to electronic throttles, which work not by direct linkage from the gas pedal, but by a system of electronic relays, sensors and software.

Toyota executives still deny in public that a glitch in this complicated, “drive-by-wire” throttle system could be the cause of these accidents. But on January 27, Toyota executives admitted as much, when they told a closed-door session of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that the causes of unintended acceleration are “very, very hard to identify.” This was later leaked to the Los Angeles Times.

One thing is certain: over the years, Toyota – which was supposed to be known for producing safe and reliable cars, at least compared to other companies – has ruthlessly cut costs in order to boost profits. According to Business Week, Toyota slashed the time it took to bring a car to production from three years down to one year, once the design of a new car was finalized. Toyota also pushed suppliers to reduce both the cost and weight of parts by 10 to 30% for each newly designed model.

As a result of this quest to increase profit, Toyota has not only reduced quality, but also cut the margin of safety in its cars.

Toyota is no Different than Other Companies

Of course, what Toyota is doing is no different than the other car makers – especially the U.S. companies. Over the last 10 years, for example, there have been more complaints of sudden acceleration for cars made by Ford (1800) than those made by Toyota (1600). And that is not the least of it. In 2009, Ford issued a giant recall of 4.5 million vehicles over a faulty switch, which had a serious potential to cause a fire. And Chrysler issued a recall of 350,000 minivans, with airbags that might not work. This followed a recall in January for Chrysler cars with potentially faulty brakes.

As workers in all the companies’ factories could testify, there is a non-ending push for production at the expense of quality – and at the expense of worker health and safety!

If Congress and the news media are singling out Toyota, it probably has little to do with a sudden concern for safety, but more to do with competition. Mammoth companies and their financiers are fighting for market share and profits at a time of economic crisis and a shrinking auto market pie. With much lower sales, more companies are in danger of disappearing. U.S. companies are depending on the U.S. state apparatus to go after their competitors.

In all this, neither the consumers nor the workers in these speed-up-driven factories can expect help from the government, whose first and basic aim is to protect corporate profits.