Toyota’s “exceptionalism” came back to bite

February 9, 2010

e-neidermeyer— Edward Niedermeyer is the editor-in-chief of The Truth About Cars. The views expressed are his own. —

(Paragraph 7 corrected on February 10.)
Life rarely offers easy answers to important decisions, but up until a few weeks ago, it seemed that new cars buyers simply couldn’t go wrong buying a Toyota. For decades, the Japanese automaker had built up an unmatched reputation for quality and reliability, on its way to becoming the best-selling automaker in the U.S and the top car producer worldwide. A Camry might not have been a particularly glamorous or exciting choice of vehicles, but consumers could buy one without doing a lick of research, and expect it to run reliably and efficiently for years. At least they could until a flurry of defects and recalls suddenly brought Toyota’s untouchable reputation back down to earth.

In a matter of days, Toyota’s good favor in the eyes of consumers has been replaced with suspicion and doubt. Having first ignored reports of unintended acceleration in its vehicles, Toyota then blamed floor mats before finally recalling some eight million gas pedals worldwide. When a brake software problem on the Prius hybrid emerged within days of the gas pedal recall, and Toyota’s leadership moved slowly to get in front of the burgeoning PR nightmare, the automaker’s spotless image suddenly found itself in shreds.

This rapid reversal of Toyota’s fortunes indicates that its reputation as an unquestionably logical choice in car brands was already wearing thin. Having refined the most efficiency and quality-focused manufacturing system in the industry by the late 1980s, Toyota responded to currency fluctuations in the early 90s by cutting costs on the design-end of the business.

According to the company’s logic at the time, a “lean” manufacturing operation couldn’t afford to build “fat” or “overquality” products in the face of intense pressure on profitability.

The result was 20 years of decontenting, in which Toyota reduced the cost and quality of its products, while coasting on the reputation of its most famously “fat” products of the late 80s and early 90s. The fact that this occurred as America’s domestic automakers were facing their own major deficits in quality and reputation allowed Toyota to build on its reputation without incurring the high costs of overquality.

In short, Toyota’s fall from grace was decades in the making, and in retrospect, the real surprise is that Toyota maintained its perceived advantage for as long as it did. Millions of dollars are won and lost in the car business by balancing cost and scale against quality and reliability, and Toyota is no exception. Only the longevity of its reputation with consumers makes Toyota’s decline so noteworthy.

But the fact that Toyota’s unmatched quality advantage existed largely in the minds of consumers doesn’t lessen the impact of its debunking. Indeed, if Toyota hadn’t enjoyed its reputational advantage, the current recalls would hardly have raised an eyebrow among consumers and the media. For proof of this, we need only look to last week’s NHTSA investigation of nearly a million Chevrolet Cobalt power steering systems, which addressed a loss of control comparable to Toyota’s unintended acceleration, but garnered little of the media attention lavished on the Toyota recall.

Americans have had years to accustom themselves to the idea that General Motors sometimes falls on the wrong side of the cost-quality balance. Toyota’s transgressions, on the other hand, represented a real loss of innocence.

Perhaps because “Toyota exceptionalism” was an unsustainable consumer perception, its demise has been accompanied by a strong, and equally unrealistic backlash. Lawsuits have been filed alleging that Toyota’s electronic throttle control unit lacks failsafes, raising the specter of yet another recall, and adding to the perception that Toyota management is unable to identify the causes of unintended acceleration. NHTSA investigations have been widened to include the possibility of such an electronic failure, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has already had to soft-pedal an ill-advised exhortation to “stop driving your Toyotas.”

But as the Audi 5000 scandal of 1986 proved, unintended acceleration is a mysterious phenomenon that can be blamed as much on operator error as a manufacturer’s defect. Indeed, in the rush to condemn Toyota’s fall from quality excellence, many have lost sight of the fact that any of the recent unintended acceleration incidents could have been prevented by shifting the vehicle’s transmission into neutral. Barack Obama’s decision to increase the NHTSA’s investigation budget was a predictable politician’s reaction to the scandal, but alert, well-trained drivers will continue to be the only factor capable of preventing inevitable quality slips from becoming fatality statistics.

Just as motorists can never assume that their vehicle will always function perfectly, consumers should avoid being lulled into a false sense of security by an automaker’s reputation alone. Automobiles are complex machines manufactured by firms that must constantly test the cost-quality equation to stay competitive in a cutthroat industry. As long as this is the case, the market for automobiles will remain dynamic and cyclical: an arena with little room for the kind of unquestioning trust that Toyota has enjoyed for so many years. If there’s a lesson to Toyota’s tumble, it’s that easy assumptions aren’t enough to keep you safe on the road, or in the showroom.


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Sorry if this is a double-post; I just registered to add this to the story…

The ironic thing is that this is not the first series of quality problems that Toyota has had. They’ve actually been very successful in keeping their problems out of the public spotlight. Until now.

Toyota was successfully sued over defects in their 1MZ V6 and 5SFE inline-4 engines (for Camry, Solara, Celica) produced between July 1996 and July 2001. In this case, a faulty crankcase breather design allowed combustion blow-by gases to accumulate in the crankcase, eventually causing the oil to gel, ruining thousands of engines. Although Toyota initially denied responsibility, the resulting class-action lawsuit was eventually settled in 2007, with Toyota agreeing to a “Special Policy Adjustment” to cover replacement of damaged engines under warranty.

The follow-on 2AZ-FE inline-4 engines produced from 2002 through 2006 (for Camry, Solara, Highlander) have a different defect, in this case a metallurgical problem in the aluminum block that allows the headbolts to strip their threads. Mechanics have, in some cases, been able to turn the headbolts with their fingers when diagnosing this. The result is that the head is able to lift up slightly, allowing coolant to leak out of the engine, or, worse, into the crankcase. The result in the latter case is engine sludge that can destroy the engine. Toyota has been steadfastly denying responsibility for this, too. Angry owners (some out as much as $8000) are starting to call for another class-action lawsuit.

I know all about the second case — it ruined my 2003 Camry’s engine.

Posted by Brainstorms | Report as abusive

Toyota is a very over-rated brand! This is not a sticking gas pedal or a floor mat problem! This is a computer glitch which CAN NOT be fixed…as you’ll all soon see! Many companies have a safety feature called ‘brake-over-ride’ which electronically lets the brake win, over the accelerator when both are engaged. Toyota doesn’t have this because they don’t care about YOUR safety! Chrysler has had this since 2003! Also Notice Toyota doesn’t have 1 car on the National insurance institute for highway safety awards list for 2010, meanwhile little old Chrysler has 4 picks & comprised 15% of the total! Buy something safe, purchase a Chrysler Jeep or Dodge Today. Stay away from Toyotas!!!

Posted by antonio311 | Report as abusive

I actually had an uncontrolled accelleration happen to me a few years ago. It turned out there was some abrasion of the gas pedal cable which prevented it returning. It is the scariest thing because initially you don’t believe it, then there is panic and by then you’re doing 50 MPH after that every ounce of concentration is consumed by panic, fear and looking at the road ahead. You don’t have the concentration resources or time to think about how to stop the car unless perhaps you’re on an empty highway. Fortunately for me, the cable loosened itself and the car slowed.

You say “(this) could have been prevented by shifting the vehicle’s transmission into neutral … but alert, well-trained drivers will continue to be the only factor capable of preventing inevitable quality slips from becoming fatality statistics.”

It has to help to have pre-programmed in your mind that in this situation you push it into neutral to kill the acceleration. I don’t wish to put words in your mouth, but having had this experience I know that cognitive processes are overloaded by the situation and you have no time to think of solutions as it happens.. to seem to suggest that victims of this were not alert or well-trained fails to grasp the realities of the situation the people found themselves in.

Posted by Pavesa | Report as abusive

“For proof of this, we need only look to last week’s recall of nearly a million Chevrolet Cobalt power steering systems, which addressed a loss of control comparable to Toyota’s unintended acceleration, but garnered little of the media attention lavished on the Toyota recall.”

What recall? There’s an investigation… NO RECALL.
And according to supplier JTEKT:

“JTEKT contends the components all met the specifications and testing requirements that GM gave it,” said Bob Haddad, a lawyer for the supplier. “The issue do not affect the operator’s ability to control the vehicle. This is a noise issue.” 91123/FREE/911239988#

So… a noise issue that does not affect the operator’s ability to control the vehicle = uncontrollably accelerating death car?

I’m not shocked at this misinformation… I expect nothing less from the operator of TTAC. It’s a GM Hate Site. He can’t help but try to get his GM shots in.

But this is Reuters, not a two-bit blog.

Posted by eaton53 | Report as abusive

The problem is that to many politicians in the white house get to many free trip in Hawaii (on TOYOTA expenses), to hide the truth from the public about Toyota

Posted by kos | Report as abusive

“alert, well-trained drivers will continue to be the only factor capable of preventing inevitable quality slips from becoming fatality statistics.”
Perhaps true, but not if the federal agency tasked with protecting their safety blows them off such as the Oct. 20th, 2009 “Denial of a Petition for a defect investigation” from NHTSA to a very savvy consumer who insisted that there was more to the Toyota pedal issue than floormats. NHTSA couldn’t find anything and refused to look deeper. Three months later, Toyota issues the gas pedal recall, installing ‘shims’ on pedals involving over 2 million cars. Someone at NHTSA should be red-faced?

Posted by fmvssguy | Report as abusive