The Truth About NHTSA Complaints

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
the truth about nhtsa complaints

Click to enrage … we mean, enlarge

According to the MSM and many on-line pundits, the NHTSA has been drowning in customer complaints about Toyotas for years. Supposedly, the warnings were thrown in the wind.

Edmunds went through the pain of sifting through NHTSA’s complaint database from 2001 through Feb. 3, 2010 . After the counting was done, Edmunds came to a startling conclusion: The deluge of complaints is a myth, to put it charitably. “Fabrication” would be a better word. Amongst 20 brands, “Toyota ranks 17th among automakers in the overall number of complaints per vehicle sold,” says Edmunds. NHTSA’s own data shows: Only drivers of Mercedes Benz, Porsches and Smarts have less to kvetch than Toyota owners.

According to the hard data, Land Rover owners complain the most about their vehicles. Much to the horror of Germany’s Autohaus, “inordinate amounts of complaints come from VW drivers.” Volkswagen ranks 4th in NHTSA’s hall of shame. Two days ago, Christian Wulff, Premier of Lower Saxony, 20 percent owner of Volkswagen, warned about Wolfsburg complacency: “The troubles of the competition should be a warning to undertake everything so that the same doesn’t happen to oneself.”

The most complaints in the database, 25.3 percent of the total, concern GM cars. Relativized by GM’s large market share, this lands GM on place 11. Ford, where quality is job one, gets more complaints per car than the cross-town rival. Chrysler, the other ward of the state, ranks 7th. Volvo, supposedly the pinnacle of safety, created even more complaints per car: Place 6.

Edmunds points out that these are raw “complaints filed by individuals.” The complaints are “not checked for accuracy by NHTSA.”

In the blood & guts dept., Edmunds tried to get hard numbers about deaths and injuries, but decided that it’s an exercise in futility. “It quickly became clear that the data is unreliable,” says the Edmunds press release. “For example, one complaint indicated that 99 people had died in one vehicle as a result of an accident. It should also be noted roughly 10 percent of total complaints appear to be duplicates.” Which may explain some of the confusion, and some of the wild numbers circulating with no dependable source.

“No one should overlook the issues raised by the Toyota recalls, but it is important to keep things in perspective,” said Edmunds’ CEO Jeremy Anwyl. “A broader view shows that consumer complaints reflect an industry issue, not just a Toyota issue. As Toyota’s experience in recent months clearly demonstrates, it is no longer an option for car companies to dismiss consumer complaints, even if the event is difficult to replicate or diagnose.” Looking at the list, car companies have their hands full.

Edmunds and NHTSA’s own data prove that there is a witch hunt and mass hysteria that are not born out by hard facts. Whether the witch hunt and mass hysteria have been created, or are just exploited by other interests, is left as an exercise to the student. Conspiracy theories? Henry Kissinger pointed out that even the paranoid have enemies. By the dubious virtue of being the world’s largest auto maker, Toyota has no shortage of enemies. And a lot of reason for paranoia.

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  • VLAD VLAD on Feb 12, 2010

    Old Russian proverb, "Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out to Get You". With this administration and the people they represent, assuming bad faith a priori will make you right more then 90% of the time.

  • Greg Locock Greg Locock on Feb 13, 2010

    Rather than fretting about the exact order of the manufacturers on that list, if you divide the number of complints by the market share then positions 3 to 19 out of the 20 fall in the range 1+/-0.5. I don't know what the statistical validity is of that table, but that seems to me to imply that there really isn't a lot in it, for most brands.

  • SCE to AUX The solid state battery is vaporware.As for software-limited pack capacity: Batteries are obviously the most expensive component of an EV, so on the rare occasion that pack capacity is dramatically limited (as in your 6-year-old example), it's because economies of scale briefly made sense at the time.Mfrs are not in the habit of overbuilding pack capacity just for fun, and then charging the customer less.Since then, pack capacities have been slightly increased via software because the mfr decides they can sacrifice a little bit of the normal safety/wear margin in the interest of range. We're talking single-digit percentages, not the 60/75 kWh jump in your example.Every pack has maybe 10% margin built into it, so eating into that today (via range increases) means it's not available to make up for battery degradation tomorrow. My 4-year-old EV still has its original range(s) and 100% SOH, but that's surely because it is slowly consuming the margin built into the pack.@Matt Posky: Not everything is a conspiracy to get your credit card account, and the lengthy editorial about this has nothing to do with solid state batteries.
  • JLGOLDEN In order for this total newcomer to grab and hold attention in the US market, the products MUST be an exceptional value. Not many people will pay name-brand money for the pretty mystery. I can appreciate the ambition of selling $50K+ crossovers, but I think they will go farther with their $30K-$40K offerings.
  • Dukeisduke They're where Tesla was when it started - a complete unknown. I haven't heard anything about a dealer network. How are they going to sell these? Direct like Tesla? Franchises picked up by existing new car dealers?
  • Master Baiter As I approach retirement, and watch my IRA and 401K account balances dwindle, I have less and less interest in $150K vehicles.
  • Azfelix With a name that sounds like a bad Google translation, problems appear to permeate every aspect of the company. I suggest a more aggressive advertising campaign during The Super Terrific Happy Hour show to turn things around.
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