What started as a crack in Toyota’s sterling reputation has widened to a gaping wound.
Billing your products as the safest cars on the road puts a lot of pressure on a company. As long as consumer reports are rosy, that pressure is not an issue. But Toyota’s recent plague of recalls have been punching holes in the Japanese giant’s public standing.
It’s true that few heads turned when, in 2005, the company recalled 75,000 of it’s eco-friendly Prius hybrid units after reports that a software issue was causing the car to stall. However, a 911 emergency call from the driver of a 2009 Lexus ES 350 with his accelerator stuck and his brakes failing sounded a much louder alarm and prompted the recall of 4.5 million units of select models in North America and Japan.
Then, in early February, it happened again — a programming glitch in the Prius, the jewel of Toyota’s crown, was found to be causing momentary braking failure. This was then followed by Toyota recalling the Corolla — the world’s best-selling car — due to possible problems with its power steering system.
It’s been a rough year for the Japanese auto-giant. The question is: can they shore up the damage and rebuild?
Officials from Boustany United Machineries Co. — the exclusive distributor of Toyota in Lebanon — did not respond to requests for comment about local action following the recalls in North America and Japan. However, Toyota’s distributor in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Futtaim Motors, said the two models would be recalled in the Gulf country in a service campaign similar to that which is being carried out in the US. As the situation escalates, it is possible that delayed shockwaves could reach Lebanon as well.
Rushing to mitigate further damage, Toyota has mobilized its entire organization of 172,000 North American employees and dealership personnel, as well as its full staff in Japan.
“We’re working hard to ensure that our dealers have the resources and support they need to make sure our customers get their cars fixed quickly,” Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer for Toyota in North America, told the press last month. “Many of our dealers are working extended hours, some 24/7, and adding service technicians and other staff to complete the recall campaign as conveniently as possible.”
Stuck in park
The operations required to fix the latest batch of problems — the sticking accelerator pedal and brake failure — are relatively simple and can be completed within an hour.
Yet the damage to the company’s reputation may prove far harder to fix for two principle reasons: first, because Toyota has staked so much of its reputation on safety; and second, due to an increasingly vocal public that views the company’s responses as neither timely nor adequate.
A report by US-based television news channel MSNBC in early February cited Toyota spokesperson Ririko Takeuchi as saying that the car maker was aware of a problem in the Prius’ braking system, and more importantly, that Toyota had begun fixing the problem in models sold since late January — indicating that the company had been aware of the problem for some time.
“There’s a sharp contrast with previous times in terms of handling these kinds of situations,” Koji Endo, managing director of Advanced Research Japan, told reporters in February.
Part of that difference has to do with what appears to be a time lag between complaints on the part of customers and action on the part of the company. As early as last June, Toyota President Akio Toyoda promised to raise the bar on quality control, saying that the company was “facing crisis.” Yet it wasn’t until early February of this year that customers were informed of the recall, with letters from Toyota instructing buyers to bring their vehicles to dealerships for servicing going out February 5.
That gap raises a lot of questions. Did it take the company more than six months to diagnose the severity of the problem? Or worse, did they understand the problem and fail to act?
With the crisis in full swing and an angry public clamoring for explanations — The Times of London reported early in February that auto dealers were facing a barrage of customers demanding to know when the recall would begin — top officials remained reticent for weeks. Little has come from top management by way of explanation for the Prius’ braking problem. Chief quality control overseer Shinichi Sasaki recently told the press “We don’t see [the problem] as critical because if you push on [the brake] a bit, the car will stop.”
Toyota now faces a criminal investigation in the United States, after defects were linked to at least five deaths, with a further 29 fatalities being investigated. The auto giant went up before congress in mid-February for two days of hearings during which congressional representatives accused the company of mismanaging the problem and misleading the public. In the hearing’s opening statements, Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, said Toyota had “failed its customers.”During the hearing Toyoda apologized to Congress and millions of his customers over the automaker’s handling of the affair, but US lawmakers said that they were planning further hearings.
However, while Toyota estimates the recall fiasco will cost $4 billion in servicing costs and lost sales, share prices have dropped only slightly. “Investors are not worried about such one-time costs. Instead they welcome Toyota’s efforts to restore confidence in its products and its relations with the US government regardless of the costs,” Kazaka Securities analyst Yoshihiko Tabei told Reuters.
In the midst of Toyota’s woes, it is perhaps the story of the Prius that has struck the deepest chord. The Prius was a landmark vehicle, not just for the company but for the automotive world as a whole. The first hybrid vehicle mass-produced across world markets, it represented a bridge between our oil-dependent past and our renewable resource future. The Prius was, in many ways, a reflection of all of Toyota’s best qualities: safety, efficiency and the cutting edge of technology.
With it’s flagship model fallen from grace and the spell of confidence bent, if not broken, Toyota will likely face an uphill struggle to save face and regain its reputation.