Wednesday, February 3, 2010

You Call This Moving Forward?

Toyota has finally gotten around to doing something about the sticky accelerators in eight of their models, now that the company has been forced to admit that the problem was far greater than a case of bad floor mats. Toyota has recalled 2.3 million cars in the U.S. to replace a plastic piece in their gas pedal setup in cars dating as far back as 2005 to avoid unintended acceleration in the future, just as the company has stopped their assembly lines to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again.
Then the previously unaffected Prius turned out to have faulty brakes.
This is the biggest disaster involving a foreign car company since Volkswagen was sued by the federal Trade Commission in the early 1980s for failing to warn customers of high oil consumption in the original Rabbit, the car that began the long malaise for VW in the United States. Toyota's quality issue is similarly damaging, and now their popular hybrid model has a separate issue entirely. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, easily one of the most diligent and thorough Secretaries of Transportation in his agency's 44-year history, even went so far as to suggest that Toyota owners should stop driving their cars. He meant that Toyota owners should get their cars fixed as soon as possible, and he apologized for his poor choice of words, but damage was still done - Toyota stock plummeted on Wall Street today.
Oh yeah, and the National Highway and Traffic Satety Administration had to send someone to Japan to get Toyota to take this case seriously.
The big winners in this sorry affair, of course, are General Motors and Ford, whose quality is improving and who suddenly have an advantage of Asia's - and possibly the world's - biggest automaker. Europe's biggest automaker may come out ahead as a result as well; Volkswagen has been emboldened in the European market, where Toyota has become a serious competitor, and VW is also on track to increase its U.S. sales to 800,000 by the end of coming decade with several new models, including their Camry-style intermediate sedan which will be made in their new plant in Tennessee starting next year. Several other auto fans must be looking at Toyota with some schadenfreude. After all, Toyota's executives had a sense of smugness about them, while the company expanded relentlessly even as so many of their competitors were struggling. In fact, this gas pedal problem began with the 2005 models, even as Toyota was acting as if nothing was going to stop its long, steady rise.
Indeed, it seemed preposterous back in thirty years ago that Toyota would ever have quality problems . . . just as it seemed improbable sixty years ago that Detroit would ever be seriously threatened by foreign competition.
Nothing is forever.

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