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3 automakers' improper inspections highlight sloppy system dependent on workers' senses

Toshihiro Suzuki, president of Suzuki Motor Corp., speaks at a news conference in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Aug. 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

The discovery that three major automakers conducted improper inspections on their vehicles' fuel-efficiency and exhaust fumes before shipment has shed light on sloppy measurement systems that are dependent on workers' senses rather than precision devices.

The Japanese government announced on Aug. 9 that Suzuki Motor Corp., Mazda Motor Corp. and Yamaha Motor Co. had conducted inappropriate inspections on over 6,400 new vehicles. The three companies immediately confirmed the errors at their respective press conferences. It had come to light earlier that Nissan Motor Co. and Subaru Corp. had falsified emissions or fuel-efficiency data during final product testing, flaring public criticism of the auto industry over the quality control of its manufacturing.

"I apologize from the bottom of my heart for causing the public trouble," Toshihiro Suzuki, president of Suzuki Motor, told a news conference, bowing deeply. The company was involved in the largest number of inappropriate inspection cases.

Each car maker examined the fuel-efficiency and other data of around 1 percent of vehicles of each model before shipment to check if the average data for the models met the standards set by the central government. If the speed and other figures surpassed government standards, the data from the inspection could not be used.

At these three companies, however, inspectors made visual judgments of whether relevant figures surpassed standards. Suzuki and Yamaha also failed to set clear procedures for inspections, including how to respond to the discovery of figures that were outside the standard range.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism instructed the three car makers to examine the figures actually measured remaining in measurement devices, and found that some of the numbers did surpass the government's guidelines.

Following the revelations of the improper inspections, the three companies calculated the average figures after excluding invalid figures, and concluded that the vehicles met the standards. Therefore, the three companies have decided that there is no need to recall the vehicles concerned.

Suzuki's president admitted that the management was indeed lax in overseeing the inspection process, saying, "Managers didn't properly understand the inspection procedures." He added that the company "will introduce a system to automatically suspend the inspection process if any relevant figure exceeds the standards, as well as take other measures to prevent the incident from reoccurring."

Mazda was also aware of the rules stipulating that if the speed and other figures surpassed the government-set standards, the inspection data could not be used. Nevertheless, an official of the company acknowledged that it "relied on the skills of trained inspectors."

Katsuaki Watanabe, vice president of Yamaha Motor, cited the company's lack of necessary rules as the largest factor behind its improper vehicle inspections.

The executives of all three companies said the wrongdoing was not intentional, and stopped short of mentioning their boards' responsibility for the matter. "We'd like to place priority on rectifying our management system," Suzuki said.

Yasuhiro Daisho, professor emeritus of automotive engineering at Waseda University, who is well versed in automobile quality control, pointed out that the three companies' boards are not sufficiently aware of the importance of abiding by the rules.

"It is problematic that these companies failed to raise awareness about the importance of inspections among its employees, even though regulations on fuel-efficiency and exhaust fumes are getting stricter," Daisho said. "The boards were apparently not sufficiently aware of the importance of education and compliance."

(Japanese original by Hironori Takechi, Ryo Yanagisawa, Mikako Yokoyama and Masahiro Kawaguchi, Business News Department)

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