But according to Toyota’s detractors, everything changed in the 1990s.
Toyota’s sacrificed quality in favor of rapid growth, abandoning the principles that made it one of the most admired companies in the world. And now, suddenly, the problems are coming home to roost. Testifying in front of congress, even Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda linked complaints of unintended acceleration to Toyota’s growth, saying that the safety issues resulted from growing the business at a pace that exceeded Toyota’s ability to develop its organization and people.
For a company that so many people admire, it would certainly be ironic to see a scandal bring Toyota down. Toyota would then be studied not only for its history of success based on quality, but also as an object lesson on what happens to a brand when integrity is compromised.
But of course that’s not the way the story has to end.
Toyota’s destiny is in its own hands. Toyota is faced with a challenge of rebuilding customer trust. As the company that effectively wrote the book on making quality cars, Toyota needs to attack the problem with a step by step, methodical approach.
The unintended acceleration problem is a tricky one. It’s a rare event, but not unheard of. For example, on 2008 models Toyota got a total of 52 complaints, which translates into one for about every 50,000 cars sold. Every car manufacturer gets some level of complaints on the unintended acceleration issue.
Getting a complaint doesn’t mean the carmaker is at fault, though.
According to a government study dating back to 1989, many if not all complaints of unintended acceleration were attributable to driver error. Cars have changed since then, so there always remains a possibility that something is going wrong. But it’s interesting that no company has been able to completely eliminate complaints of sudden acceleration.
No matter what the source of the problem is its up to Toyota to address it.
As Toyota well knows, trust is based on perception. Toyota needs to make it very hard for unintended acceleration to occur. Until Toyota can drive the complaint rate down, the issue won’t go away.
Editor's Note: In a previous posting, the author wrote that Ford has received more complaints of unintended acceleration than Toyota. Ford contacted CNBC to dispute the claim and sent us the following statement,“We do not recognize those calculations for us or others in the industry. The NHTSA database (VOQ data) includes six different types of customer complaints under a broad category called "Vehicle Speed Control." When we analyzed the NHTSA data and removed complaints due to our speed control deactivation switch recall — which is not at all related to sudden acceleration — Ford's performance in this category has improved each year and our complaints have been significantly lower than Toyota's each year since 2005.”