Auto Manufacturers Took Own Approach to Certification Tests; Some Say Government System Has Become ‘Mere Formality’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Officials from the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry visit Toyota Motor Corp. headquarters in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on Tuesday.

The irregularities committed by five domestic vehicle manufacturers primarily resulted from the companies each using their own interpretation of the central government’s system for model certification.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry conducted an on-site inspection of Yamaha Motor Co.’s headquarters in Shizuoka Prefecture on Wednesday, in connection with falsified applications for model certification. The ministry inspected Toyota Motor Corp.’s head office in Aichi Prefecture the day before.

Although some have said that the model certification system has become a mere formality, the revelation of these misdeeds could damage Japan’s credibility as an automotive powerhouse. This in turn could hurt the nation’s economy.

Under the model certification system, vehicles, engines and other vehicle equipment are inspected to ensure that they meet the government’s safety and environmental standards. If vehicle manufacturers obtain model certification, they no longer need to have each unit inspected individually by the government.

This system ensures the mass production of cars and motorcycles, as well as their safety and environmental performance.

If certification is revoked – for example, due to the discovery of irregularities – the companies will essentially be unable to mass-produce their vehicles and must halt shipments.

Applications for recertification undergo a rigorous government review, and it takes at least several months for a company to receive it.

Toyota failed to use the legally required weight in a test to confirm fuel leaks and other problems that could result from the impact of a rear-end collision. It claimed there were no problems from a test collision that used a dolly heavier than the legal standard.

Honda Motor Co. falsified data in an engine performance test to bring the results closer to those listed in its catalog. Although Honda President Toshihiro Mibe said there was no effect on performance, it cannot be denied that the company disregarded laws and regulations.

Toyota discovered irregularities in applications for model certification at its group companies Hino Motors Ltd. and Daihatsu Motor Co., beginning in 2022. However, the automaker failed to identify any misconduct at itself until the ministry called for an investigation. This shows that self-regulation within the industry did not function properly.

Severe conditions

Some manufacturers have been calling for the model certification system to be streamlined, claiming there are no safety problems with these vehicles.

Many of the companies’ irregularities were found in the data used for the applications, which were based on in-house tests conducted under more stringent conditions than those required by the regulations.

As automobiles have become more multifunctional in recent years, the number of inspection items has increased and become more complex. At the same time, the pace at which new models are being introduced has not changed significantly.

Regarding a review of the certification system, Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda said at a press conference on Monday that he could not comment at this time. However, Toyoda did say “there is a gap” between the realities faced by frontline workers and regulatory standards.

“We want to work with the authorities to make the industry more competitive,” Toyoda said.

Takeshi Niinami, representative director of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), criticized the companies involved at a press conference Tuesday, saying, “What they have done has led to a loss of consumer confidence, and that is deeply regrettable.”

However, Niinami also said: “There may be discrepancies [between manufacturers and safety standards.] It may be time to look at what real safety and security means.”

Even as vehicles become more technologically advanced, manufacturers must adhere to a development timeframe, said Mai Niizoe, a research officer of Sompo Institute Plus Inc. “The government must also seek to help [companies] obtain model certification more efficiently.”

Preventive measures

In response to the repeated misconduct in the automobile industry, the ministry established a study group of experts in April to formulate industry-wide measures to prevent a recurrence. However, these measures have focused on how to comply with the system. There has been no movement to fundamentally overhaul the system itself.

While some have expressed concern about the excessive burden placed on domestic manufacturers, a senior official at the ministry’s Logistics and Road Transport Bureau said, “The tests required to obtain model certification in Japan are neither strict nor lenient by global standards.”

The procedures for obtaining model certification, including the required documents and submission deadlines, are continuously being reviewed for streamlining and simplification based on the opinions of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, a group of major manufacturers and other organizations.

However, some ministry officials look sternly at those who are seeking changes.

“How can they talk about ‘the problems with the rules’ in a situation where they’re apologizing for misconduct?” a ministry official said.