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Emissions cheating stains Japanese cars' reputation for quality

5 out of country's 8 passenger car makers strayed from standard procedures

A spate of scandals involving quality checks has hurt the reputation of Japanese automakers.(Photo by Akira Kodaka)
Scandals involving quality checks have hurt the image of Japanese automakers. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- The fudging of pre-shipment inspections by Suzuki Motor, Mazda Motor and Yamaha Motor that came to light this week risks further damaging trust in a Japanese auto industry already battered by a string of testing-related scandals.

Quality control issues have now surfaced at five of Japan's eight passenger car manufacturers -- along with Yamaha, which produces motorcycles -- since 2016, when Suzuki and Mitsubishi Motors admitted to problems with their fuel economy testing. This is striking in an industry known for strict standards.

At many of the scandal-hit automakers, workers involved in the inspection process seem to have lacked a full grasp of the testing rules and the importance of following them. Tougher competition on the global stage has put greater pressure on carmakers to slash costs, which may have led them to cut corners in training staff.

At the same time, factories in Japan tend to be highly independent and self-directed, with the companies that operate them allowing a great deal of discretion. Though this offers many advantages, the lack of adequate oversight has created an environment where misconduct can take place.

A shift in responsibility has also played a role. The central government has to guarantee the safety of autos produced in Japan, but the carmakers do the necessary checks with their own qualified inspectors on behalf of the government. This has saved time and effort, enabling production on a larger scale. But such in-house testers were responsible for the latest round of inspection problems.

The issues at Mazda, Suzuki and Yamaha emerged in reports ordered by the government last month after Nissan Motor and Subaru were found to have doctored emissions and fuel economy data. The two automakers apparently systematically altered test results that failed to meet internal standards. This followed a scandal late last year involving the companies' use of unqualified staffers for inspections.

Thursday's reports from Suzuki, Mazda and Yamaha found no data tampering but did highlight other systemic problems.

Takaki Nakanishi of the Nakanishi Research Institute called this an "endemic problem" in Japan and cited "institutional fatigue."

The inspection regime, including how rules are enforced, is showing its age in an industry increasingly going digital, he argued.

No issues with final vehicle checks were found at Toyota Motor, Honda Motor or Toyota unit Daihatsu Motor. Toyota has automated fuel economy and emissions testing, ensuring no human involvement in the results, according to the company.

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