As a journalist for “The Reporters” on the FOX Broadcasting Network, I visited one of Toyota’s largest manufacturing facilities in Toyota City, Japan, a number of years ago. It was a marvel of engineering and productivity. Workers were highly motivated and knew they were playing on a winning team.
It was crystal clear that the Japanese were more competitive than American car makers and they were steadily taking market share. As a result, Toyota eventually passed Ford in U.S. sales and GM in sales globally. Toyota had the reputation of being absolutely the best. My how the tables have turned.
For months now, we have been hearing about the shoddy safety record of Toyota cars, trucks and SUV’s. Nearly every model has been the subject of a recall, from the flagship Camry sedan for sudden acceleration issues, to its premier Lexus because of problems with its electronic steering system, to the Sequoia SUV for sticking accelerator pedals.
The latest embarrassment is coming out of a California lawsuit revealing that Toyota encountered cracking and breaking steering relay rods in the U.S. for at least 12 years before its 2005 recall of nearly a million trucks for the defect.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration now has begun an investigation. NHTSA is demanding that Toyota come clean on why it waited to recall vehicles with safety problems it knew about for years. Federal law states that an automaker must report known safety defects within five business days.
“There is a pattern of covering up defects at Toyota,” according to Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group.”It looks to me like Toyota knew about” the relay rod problem long before the recalls, said Ditlow.
Toyota’s badly tarnished safety record overall has resulted in an estimated 89 deaths and 57 injuries between the year 2000 and May of 2009, according to the NHTSA.
Toyota has grudgingly recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide because of safety defects. The company has been slapped with a record $16.4 million fine by U.S. safety regulators for its handling of the recalls. The fine was the largest ever assessed to an auto maker. And now Toyota faces one of the biggest public relations nightmares in its history.
The $64-thousand or perhaps $64-million dollar question in Toyota’s case, is why wasn’t the safety issue front and center over the last decade when Toyota encountered problem after problem and allegedly hid the issues from regulators and the public?
In an exclusive interview with ABC News, former Toyota attorney Dimitrios Biller claimed the Japanese auto giant regularly covered up evidence of safety problems. Biller was in charge of product liability suits for Toyota before leaving the company in 2007.
“You have to understand that Toyota in Japan does not have any respect for our legal system,” said Biller. “They were hiding evidence, concealing evidence, destroying evidence, obstructing justice.”
The new President of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, has said the safety problems may be connected to Toyota’s rapid expansion as it grew to become the world’s largest car maker. Does that sound a bit like Gordon Gekko talking about how “greed, for a lack of a better word, is good” before being arrested and sent off to prison?
Toyota now is spending millions on a massive advertising campaign in an effort to clean up its badly damaged reputation. The company is bombarding the television airwaves with a steady blast of commercials touting its STAR Safety System and accident avoidance technology.
One ad claims that “everyone deserves to be safe.” Is this something that Toyota just realized? The chief engineer in the spot claims that Toyota “always thinks of safety even in the concept design of our vehicles”. The commercial claims beg the question: What was Toyota thinking over the past 15 years?
I remember when the American car was king well into the 70′s but then Detroit got sloppy and the long descent into darkness began. But today it’s another story. American cars are in many cases superior in quality to foreign brands so Americans and car buyers around the world have the option of saying no to Toyota, a company that so callously disregarded the safety of its customers over a very long period of time.
Nevertheless, Toyota continues to sell vehicles at a competitive clip despite its travails but the public may begin to choose alternatives if many more of these defect and recall stories present themselves.
Going forward, Toyota is going to have to prove that its effort on safety is not just PR spin but is the most critical thing it does, bar none. When a motorist is traveling down the road, there should be no doubt about the safety features of the car. It must be a given that the vehicle is fail-safe.
Toyota’s reputation management efforts will only be effective over the long term if it proves to the driving public, day after day, year after year, that only one thing really matters, the safety of the people who drive its cars. No more hidden agendas. No more secrets. Transparency and honesty, no matter what the monetary cost.