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Auto PR Crisis Watch: Japan Doesn't Want To Be Exporting Radioactive Cars

You know what I love most about my Toyota (TM) Prius? The radiation! This is not a phrase you're likely to hear Prius owners utter -- and Toyota, along with other Japanese carmakers, is going all out to ensure it doesn't happen.

According to Autoblog (citing the Wall Street Journal):

[R]adiation fears have prompted the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) to begin testing vehicles for radiation prior to shipments at home and abroad. The move follows steps already being taking by Nissan to test all vehicles prior to shipment.

JAMA has mainly decided to perform the radiation checks to calm the nerves of some customers who have asked if their products are still safe, and so far radiation has been negligible.

Automakers doing their own testing?
I've used the Autoblog quote because I think it gets the story slightly wrong, or at least introduces some confusion. The WSJ story makes it sound as if the carmakers (other than Nissan) themselves are doing the tests, not the JAMA (I doubt this trade organization, which represents 14 companies, has testing capabilities anyway).

However, even the WSJ's report implies that JAMA is involved:

The tests implemented by the auto association show results that fall within the range designated by the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan as being unthreatening to human health, based on the daily readings performed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in every prefecture since March 25, the auto association said.
Is something getting lost in translation here?

Nothing is objective
Let's go to Bertel Schmitt at The Truth About Cars, who explains that "[t]o put these fears to rest, JAMA has devised a testing regimen... According to the test plan, each car maker tests about 10 vehicles per [container] ship for radiation."

The crux of the matter is that an objective testing body isn't doing the testing. Now you might say, There isn't that much radiation to be worried about! And you'd be right. But you'd also be missing the point.

Have we learned nothing from oil spills and auto recalls?
On the first anniversary of the BP gulf disaster and more than a year after Toyota's Great Recall, it's baffling to me that Japan's carmakers wouldn't want to be as fastidious as possible about how they're handing the radiation threat.

That threat is minuscule, but this would be a good time to send in either government workers or experts from an independent agency to do the checking. The carmakers should be trusted, but why take the chance? Even if you're a trustworthy carmaker?

Business as usual
After the BP blowout, I wrote a piece about the crisis in crisis PR, with the assumption that Toyota and BP's experiences would lead to much smarter future corporate moves in the face of trouble.

But the cycle apparently can't be broken. People are terrified of radiation -- irrationally so, much of the time, but still. When you're dealing with something this frightening, you want to compensate all out of proportion with what's probable. By doing so, you demonstrate that you take public health and safety very seriously indeed.

The right way to do this
What JAMA (and the automakers) should have done is cut off at the knees any concern than exported Japanese autos have been irradiated, as soon as it or any of its members heard that some cars were setting off sensors outside Japan. To do so, it needed to bring in independent verification forces and send them to the car plants.

The Japanese auto industry doesn't need another PR crisis. But with this move, it looks like it's trying to get one.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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