Brown: Toyota’s troubles unchecked for too long

By Jacob Brown

If you haven’t been paying attention to the automotive industry lately, Toyota has… If you haven’t been paying attention to the automotive industry lately, Toyota has currently led a campaign toward alienating its customers, recalling nearly 8 million vehicles worldwide.

With cars that have reportedly had failing brakes, sticking accelerator pedals and brand-new trucks that are already rusting apart, the once-invincible Tokyo-based manufacturer has done everything a company could possibly do to sink itself into ruin.

Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made headlines back in February when he reported a software glitch that made his 2010 Prius accelerate up to 97 mph without his foot on the pedal.

But in the midst of Toyota’s woes, the company has recently reported increased stock prices even before March’s strong sales numbers were released. Why? Well, they’ve increased incentives for customers, and loyal Toyota buyers haven’t abandoned the brand. But as strange as it might sound, the answer could in part be cosmic rays from outer space.

Yes, the federal government recently turned over Toyota’s unintended-acceleration case to NASA to see if cosmic rays could be interfering with the electronic throttles found in many Toyotas. That bit suggests that maybe the company didn’t under-engineer their cars — excellent news for investors. Rather, the universe’s invisible frequencies have created miniature Bermuda Triangles that hover around Toyotas. And Satan recently purchased a Zamboni, too.

NASA is supposed to publish a conclusive study detailing its findings, but I’m a bit skeptical about its methodology. Toyota officials told the Detroit Free Press that its electronics systems should be able to withstand such radiation, but the findings won’t be official until July when this “sudden acceleration” fiasco will be less in the minds of the buying public. Still, history has shown it takes time for an auto company’s image to make a comeback after a shameful situation.

Back in 1983, Volkswagen’s Audi luxury brand faced a similar situation, and it ended up needing a decade to recover from its unintended acceleration brouhaha, which stemmed from the gas pedal’s proximity to the brake and owners confusing the two. And Ford failed to retain sales leadership with its Explorer after the 1990s when it had to recall 4 million trucks with defective tires.

So what makes Toyota so special? Chock it up to an amazing recovery team.

Initially when CEO Akio Toyoda came out of hiding back in January to meet with the media, he drove off in a brand-new Audi after his interview instead of one of his own cars. A month later, word broke that the company allegedly had withheld evidence of safety problems with its cars as early as 2004.

Then the PR team came to the rescue with an aggressive $1 billion incentive plan for new cars on top of the $2 billion Toyota had already thrown at recall fixes.

It probably didn’t hurt matters, either, that Toyota’s Chris Tinto, vice president of the company’s regulatory affairs in Washington, used to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation.

So there’s a real chance we might never know what the official cause of Toyota’s recent quality woes have been. Toyota has become a cowboy, successfully wrangling its problems in a lasso of obfuscation and tossing them down a gorge where no one will find them.

And like it or not, this will probably become a textbook lesson for business students on how to remain successful in spite of mixed messages and several initial blunders during the investigation in which Toyota representatives claimed nothing was wrong with their cars.

As the world’s economic climate still sits in a state of flux, any company could quickly find itself crippled by any sort of defect to a point where recovery might not be possible without bankruptcy, so self-defense is essential. These companies have a responsibility to their shareholders to minimize expenses and maximize profits, which could be why Toyota uses a cheaper, inferior gas pedal in many of their North American-sold products from the CTS Corp. instead of a unit made by Denso that hasn’t caused any problems.

Toyota uses what it calls kaizen manufacturing, giving line workers a pull cord so they can stop the assembly line to fix defects. But Toyota should have done the same thing on a corporate level in 2004 when its quality started slipping.

To allude to Kanye West, I don’t think Toyota has cared about its customers until now. If they did, they wouldn’t have let these relatively easy-to-fix problems accelerate out of control.

For now, federal heel-dragging will surely help Toyota polish up its now-tarnished reputation. But if Toyota really wants to regain consumer trust, it should keep its collective head to the ground searching for fixes — not up at the cosmos.

E-mail Jacob at [email protected]