“I’m distressed that our company is responsible for something that could cast doubt on the quality of Japanese manufacturing,” Yasuyuki Yoshinaga, chief executive of Subaru Corporation, said at a news conference on Friday. “This will be reported around the world.”
The inspection problem involves final quality checks that automakers perform on vehicles before they leave factories for dealerships.
After a car rolls off an assembly line, workers look it over and run it on rollers to ensure it is in working order. Points on their checklists include: Do the seats adjust properly? Do the headlights shine at the correct angle? Does the speedometer work accurately?
Such checks are a standard part of automobile manufacturing. But in Japan, the law requires that carmakers produce a special certificate for every vehicle to show it has passed examination; only then can it be registered as road worthy.
Government guidelines specify that workers who conduct these inspections must be “qualified” — though the authorities leave the details up to manufacturers. The car companies have the responsibility of deciding what training is required and of authorizing employees to work as qualified inspectors.
Nissan and Subaru stumbled on that step. They allowed some workers who had not completed training programs or who had not been formally authorized to be “final inspectors” to perform the checks.
The corner-cutting appears to have been long-established. Subaru said company rules designating who was allowed to inspect cars had been inconsistent with government guidelines for 30 years. Nissan says it is still investigating the scope and duration of its failure, but several news reports have suggested that it too may have been using unqualified inspectors for decades.
Independent specialists say it is unlikely that the inspection practices resulted in unsafe cars.
Automotive manufacturers and their suppliers perform multiple safety tests during development and production, and serious but hard-to-find faults — say, unstable chemicals inside an airbag inflater, which are believed to have caused the Takata hazard — are unlikely to be spotted by a limited, mostly external once-over.
Some commentators have suggested that part of the blame belongs with Japanese regulators, whose guidelines regarding inspectors appear simultaneously burdensome and vague. Cars made for export are not subject to the same rules, because governments outside Japan do not require final vehicle inspections to be carried out by workers with special training and qualifications.
“The checks are a formality, and it would not be an exaggeration to say they require no special know-how,” Hisao Inoue, a veteran Japanese automotive journalist, wrote on the website of the magazine Gendai Business after the initial admission by Nissan.
He said the inspection regulations should be reviewed, though he added that it was “absolutely wrong” for Nissan to have broken the rules.
Yoshio Tsukuda, founder of the Tsukuda Mobility Research Institute, an auto industry study firm, said Nissan and Subaru had risked their reputations and shown a disregard for following the rules, but had probably not endangered their customers.
“It makes you question how well they are managing what’s happening on the factory floor,” Mr. Tsukuda said. “Even if there is not a safety problem, users of their products will feel uneasy.”
Mr. Tsukuda said a shrinking car market in Japan may have increased the temptation to cheat. The country’s automakers are selling more and more vehicles abroad, as demand at home declines because of Japan’s falling population. Nissan, for instance — a particularly foreign-focused producer — sells 90 percent of its cars outside Japan.
That increases the cost, relative to sales, of complying with domestic-only rules — in this case by putting workers through special courses to become authorized inspectors, a process that can take them away from their normal duties over a period of weeks or even months.
“The Japan market is becoming an afterthought,” Mr. Tsukuda said.
The carmakers’ crisis management capabilities are now being tested.
In particular, critics have complained that Hiroto Saikawa, Nissan’s chief executive, failed to show sufficient contrition at a news conference about the company’s lapse. In a country where apologies are highly ritualized, even his bow — briefer and shallower than those of most executives seeking the public’s forgiveness — became a target of criticism.
Subaru, which is one of Japan’s smaller carmakers, with production of about one million vehicles a year, said that 245 workers in Japan were authorized to conduct final vehicle inspections. It said a much smaller group of employees — between four and 17 at any given time — who were studying to be inspectors but had not yet qualified, would also certify vehicles, contrary to government guidelines.
Those junior workers would mark inspection certificates using the name stamps of qualified supervisors, Subaru said.
“It was not our intention to deceive anyone, but what we did was not appropriate,” Mr. Yoshinaga said. “Rules are rules.”