Auto recall relationship opportunity for dealer

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

COLUMBIA - Faced with massive recalls of the cars he sells, a Lewisburg man who owns a Toyota dealership here has hired a man with experience in product recall to serve customers with recalled vehicles.

Tom Cochran, a retired airline pilot who's also helped a ceiling fan manufacturer deal with the fallout from a fan blade bracket, was hired by Eddie Roberts, a resident of Creekside Drive near his Saddle Creek Golf Course.

Cochran is the man focused only on recall issues at Roberts' Toyota dealership, one of several car dealerships his family has owned and operated in Lewisburg, Columbia and Shelbyville. With car sales in his blood, Roberts might be said to have taken the recall to heart, or to the seat of his very being as he's driven a couple of 2009 Toyota Camrys to Columbia from Lewisburg.

Speaking Friday in his office with a glass wall to the showroom, Roberts and other Toyota dealers are now facing a recall of 270,000 Prius hybrid gas-electric vehicles. Some 100,000 of those cars were sold in America. Toyota was expected on Tuesday to notify the U.S. and Japanese governments of a computer glitch that increases stopping distances, according to published and broadcast reports.

Reprogramming vehicle computers, securing carpets and modifying brake pedals are provided at no charge to customers as Toyota dealerships are responding to those conditions' discovery since U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood advised Toyota drivers to stop driving affected vehicles and take them to their dealers.

Cochran's the recall man at Roberts' store.

There's a "relationship opportunity" from these circumstances, Roberts said, listing three crossroads for the story that's played for more than a week around the world at the: manufacturer's hometown and country; dealerships; and in halls of government.

As for LaHood's statements, Roberts said, "People feel on the spot on what needs to be said and the secretary probably said what came to mind and it didn't meet the script."

In turn, Roberts describes his decision to become one of a few dealers to invite the press so he could "communicate with Toyota owners and take some of the mystique" from the situation.

The solutions are simple: A hook is affixed to the floorboard to hold the carpet from slipping under the accelerator pedal; More room for the pedal is created by removing some padding in the floorboard, shortening the pedal and replacing a part to reduce friction when the pedal is pressed; And in some models, computer reprogramming fixes the relationship between acceleration and slowing the vehicle.

Like another man at the dealership Friday, Bill Hulshof of Lewisburg was "just a little concerned about it," but mostly for his wife, Carolyn, who drives her Toyota "to church, Wally-World and around Lewisburg." The couple lives near Roberts and got "a letter on the floor mat," so Bill checked it, found it "nowhere near the accelerator," but when other issues arose, Carolyn "refused to drive" the 2008 Avalon, he said.

She said she didn't want to be a danger on the road to others.

Roberts said about 30 modifications are being completed daily. A skilled technician could do about eight a day.

Lou Kimmel, 67, of Columbia had his wife's pickup truck in the shop, he said. She won't drive it. Much of her driving is pulling a trailer loaded with horses.

Another customer was getting new windshield wiper blades after he realized his Toyota hadn't been recalled.

About 65 percent of the vehicles on Roberts' lot had to be held because of he recall, but they're all available now, he said.