Investigative teams may hurt Toyota

A Toyota logo is pictured outside a dealership near Chester in England.

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Bob Moon: It looked as though Toyota might have to fight more than 200,000 runaway vehicle lawsuits. Today, a panel of judges ruled it will only have to fight one. A combined case will be tried close to its U.S. headquarters in California. Meantime, the carmaker has now put together special teams to investigate complaints. Toyota says they're aimed at listening "more intently" and promptly addressing customer concerns. The teams have also uncovered two fraudulent trouble claims so far.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports these are aggressive investigations, which could also hurt Toyota.


Alisa Roth: Toyota's filled these teams with engineers and specialized technicians, but it wants them to act like detectives.

Jeffrey Liker is an engineering professor at the University of Michigan.

Jeffrey Liker: Any good detective knows you want to be at the crime scene as fast as possible and talking to people as fast as possible. And as the trail gets cold, it's hard to figure out what really happened.

One of the ways these detectives will get information is from the so-called black boxes. These are like the boxes on airplanes -- they record data about what the car was doing right before and after it crashed. But Liker says there are plenty of other ways to collect evidence, too.

Liker: They can look at the floor mats, they can look at the wear on the brakes, they can look at what's overheated.

Toyota says this is about protecting customers. It'll use the evidence to fix problems with its vehicles. But it's also about protecting the company.

David Margulies is an expert in crisis management. He says Toyota needs the information to defend itself from drivers who file lawsuits. He says the company can benefit from this kind of active approach. But there are also risks.

David Margulies: If they start coming back and calling people liars, if they start coming back and suddenly, they're debating a little old lady, who swears, "My car accelerated," and you have a sign saying "no it didn't. You're a liar." They have to be very diplomatic in how they say, "We couldn't find an issue with this vehicle."

Toyota says it'll try to get in touch with customers within 24 hours of the reported incidents to do the on-site investigation.

I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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