When the Toyota first announced a safety alert warning the owners of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus models of a potentially deadly flaw, two questions crossed my mind. First, how serious is this problem to fix? Second, how much will this stain Toyota's sterling reputation for safety and reliability? The answers bring good and bad news for Toyota.
First, the fix for a potentially fatal design flaw where floor mats become loose and lodge under the accelerator is an easy one. You take out the floor mat, problem solved. Sure, Toyota runs the risk some people will pooh pooh the possibility of their floor mat being a threat and they'll ignore the alert. That would be a huge mistake, but one that is beyond Toyota's control. So almost immediately, Toyota has taken the step to eliminate a safety concern.
The second questions is a bigger problem for Toyota. Sure, you can look at this safety alert and say, "come on, it's a floor mat. It's not as if Toyota built the Corvair." That's true. But listen to the 911 call of a man driving a car that keeps accelerating in California and you'll realize why Toyota issued this safety alert and held a hastily arranged conference call Wednesday afternoon. Toyota suspects, but has not officially determined that the floor mats in the car became stuck under the gas pedal. The call is chilling in part because we can all imagine ourselves in the same exact situation.
Which brings up the safety and reliability reputation of Toyota. For decades, it has been held up as an example of how a company rarely makes mistakes, and when it does, they usually are not huge ones. Now, with the safety alert of 3.8 million vehicles, people will ask a few more questions about Toyota. Nobody will accuse the company of purposely designing floor mats and an gas pedal that could be deadly combination- nor should they. Still, the words 3.8 million, safety alert, and run-away acceleration will now be linked to Toyota.
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