There’s an old expression, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (attributed to George Santayana). I couldn’t help but think of that saying when I read a headline in my Jan. 28 hometown newspaper, which read: “Toyota’s reputation for quality tarnished by a defect.”
The article went on to review the issue Toyota was dealing with regarding “sudden acceleration.” Toyota has been trying to determine why accelerator pedals become stuck. There are concerns that this problem has been the cause of a number of accidents, even some deaths. First, Toyota said that accelerator pedals could become lodged under floor mats, causing sudden acceleration. Now, Toyota is saying that the actual gas pedal mechanism is causing the accelerator to become stuck regardless of whether the vehicle contains a floor mat. Toyota said, “In certain rare cases, the gas pedal mechanism wears down, causing the accelerator to become harder to press, slower to return or, in some cases, stuck.”
In a letter to federal safety officials, Toyota said the problem appeared to be related to the potential build-up of condensation on sliding surfaces in the accelerator system that helps drivers push down or release the gas pedal.”
Toyota spokesperson John Hanson said the automaker does not yet have a solution to the latest problem but is working to develop one. Hanson said the company is unaware of any accidents or injuries due to the gas pedal problems associated with the recent recall, but could not rule it out for sure. He said the recall “came together very quickly,” and said Toyota will soon be contacting owners directly about the matter.
Why did I start the article with Santayana’s quote? The quote reminded me of the “Audi sudden acceleration crisis” of 1986.
Twenty years ago, an automaker experienced a similar situation, its auto was accused of “sudden acceleration.”
“The Audi 5000 had been an automotive success story. Between the time of its introduction in 1978, the car was the flagship model for Audi’s American distributor, Volkswagen of America. In fact U.S. sales more than doubled by 1985. Then Audi 5000 drivers complained that the car would accelerate, often with devastating results. The accidents have been strikingly similar. The car idles normally in the “park” position, but when the automatic transmission is shifted into “drive” or “reverse,” the car suddenly accelerates without warning. Drivers try braking, but the car fails to stop before hitting cars, trees, walls, or people. Despite the growing number of accidents blamed on the Audi’s sudden acceleration, Audi AG -- the West German affiliate of Volkswagen that makes the Audi 5000 – has steadfastly denied that the car is defective” (from an article in May 1987 by Thomas Walthen).
Instead of letting the owners of the Audi 5000 know that the manufacturer was investigating the issue to determine the facts, instead of telling their story as they discovered the facts, and of fixing the problem should they have found any, they took an aggressive position. They responded by consistently blaming the cars’ drivers for the mishaps. They lost customers’ confidence. When a company loses their customers and prospects confidence, they’re going to lose sales.
According to an article on the Audi 5000 incidents, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a story on Dec. 22, 1995, that indicated “customers’ faith plummeted, and Audi lost two-thirds of its market share in three years” as a result of the handling of the sudden acceleration crisis issue.
Based on the Audi 5000 crisis, I thought that Toyota would have handled the “sudden acceleration” crisis differently. Initially, they said they thought it was the driver’s fault. Toyota said it was safe for owners to drive their cars because the sudden acceleration occurred rarely. It recommended that if drivers’ experience sudden acceleration, they should firmly apply their brakes -- not pump the brakes – put the car in neutral and then stop the car. They should then contact their nearest Toyota dealer after parking it in a safe location.
Toyota said on Jan. 26 it was suspending U.S. sales and manufacture of eight recalled vehicle models to fix gas pedals that stick. The next day, USA Today (Jan. 27) asked the following question: “With Toyota’s stunning decision yesterday to stop sales of eight models, is it safe to drive your car?”
On Jan. 29, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda made his first public comments about the recall. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he told Japanese broadcaster NHK, “I am very sorry that we are making our customers feel concerned. People can feel safe driving in the current situation. Please trust that we are responding so it will be even safer.”
A headline in the Jan. 31 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “Toyota to start shipping parts to fix gas pedals. Toyota has recalled 4.2 million vehicles worldwide because the gas pedal systems can get stuck. The company said the problem is rare and is caused by condensation that builds up in the gas pedal assembly. Toyota said that not all the models listed in the recall have the faulty gas pedals, which were made by CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind., Models in Japan, and some models built in the U.S., have pedal systems made by another parts supplier, Denso Corp. which function well.”
As I write this column, (Feb. 3), a question comes to mind, “How will crisis management experts grade Toyota’s efforts in handling the gas pedal crisis?”
More importantly to Toyota, how will their customers (including my wife and me) look at their product in the future?
Ed Devlin, CBCP, has provided business recovery planning consulting services since 1973 when he co-founded Devlin Associates. Since then, Devlin has assisted more than 300 companies in the writing of their business recovery plans and has made more than 800 seminars and presentations worldwide.