Toyota: how even the mighty can stumble

As a Toyota owner, I have a particular interest in this.

The caller, a male voice, was panic-stricken: “We’re in a Lexus … we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck … we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … we’re approaching the intersection … hold on … hold on and pray … pray …”

The call ended with the sound of a crash.

The Lexus ES 350 sedan, made by Toyota, had hit a sport utility vehicle, careened through a fence, rolled over and burst into flames. All four people inside were killed: the driver, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, and his wife, daughter and brother-in-law.

It was the tragedy that forced Toyota, which had received more than 2,000 complaints of unintended acceleration, to step up its own inquiry, after going through multiple government investigations since 2002.

Yet only last week did the company finally appear to come to terms with the scope of the problem — after expanding a series of recalls to cover millions of vehicles around the world, incalculable damage to its once-stellar reputation for quality and calls for Congressional hearings.

It’s sobering, this. Toyota has for two decades been the world’s best car manufacturer. But something clearly went very wrong. Success does strange things to organisations. And it leads to hubris:

At almost every step that led to its current predicament, Toyota underestimated the severity of the sudden-acceleration problem affecting its most popular cars. It went from discounting early reports of problems to overconfidently announcing diagnoses and insufficient fixes.

As recently as the fall, Toyota was still saying it was confident that loose floor mats were the sole cause of any sudden acceleration, issuing an advisory to millions of Toyota owners to remove them. The company said on Nov. 2 that “there is no evidence to support” any other conclusion, and added that its claim was backed up by the federal traffic safety agency.

But, in fact, the agency had not signed on to the explanation, and it issued a sharp rebuke. Toyota’s statement was “misleading and inaccurate,” the agency said. “This matter is not closed.”

We have two Toyota cars, and they’re the most reliable and efficient vehicles I’ve ever owned, with the possible exception of the old VW Beetles I had in the 1970s. Even so…