by ilene - February 11th, 2010 7:08 pm
By Bill Saporito / Toyota City, courtesy of TIME
What’s wrong with Toyota?
Not much. At least not from an engineering, mechanical or even a quality point of view. You don’t reach the top gear in the global auto industry unless you make outstanding cars, which Toyota does — most of the time. Though cars are familiar machines, they are also highly complex ones. To create a modern car, a company has to design, engineer, build, buy and then assemble some 10,000 parts. Sell 7.8 million cars, as Toyota did worldwide in 2009 — a horrible year for the industry — and there are billions of new parts with the potential to go kerflooey. Inevitably, some do.
What makes the recall since November of nearly 9 million Toyotas that are susceptible to uncontrolled acceleration and balky brakes such a shocking story is not so much the company’s manufacture of some shoddy cars or even its dreadful crisis management — though those are errors that will cost it more than $2 billion in repairs and lost sales this year. It’s something more pernicious: the vapor lock that seems to have seized Toyota’s mythologized corporate culture and turned one of the most admired companies in the world into a bunch of flailing gearheads. Not only is Toyota producing more flawed cars than in the past, but an organization known for its unrivaled ability to suss out problems, fix them and turn them into advantages is looking clueless on all counts.
Although the recalls seemed sudden, the evidence has been piling up. Literally. According to a report from Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies (SRS), a consumer-advocacy group, there was a spike in the number of unintended-acceleration incidents in some Toyota vehicles in 2002, about the same time that Toyota introduced its electronic throttle control. The problem was initially blamed on a floor mat or vehicle trim that, if it came loose, could jam the accelerator pedal in an open-throttle position. That was followed by the first of several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations, in 2003, and two small recalls in 2005 and 2007. But accidents mounted, and last November the company had to take back nearly 3.8 million U.S. Vehicles — its biggest-ever recall — to address the problem.