That Toyota brand and fleet of vehicles: Matrix, Sequoia, Highlander, RAV4, Camry, Avalon, Corolla, Tundra and Lexus. If any of you are the proud owner of one of these vehicles over the past few years, I’m certain you have horror story after horror story you could testify about before Congress, just as several have done in recent days. Do you ever wonder whether anyone was ever listening to your cry in the wilderness?
Many of us are just too personally familiar with the crisis Toyota now faces as a result of its clandestine relationship with our government which has seriously jeopardized or killed countless Americans on our highways. Toyota, which is headquartered in Japan, culturally addresses issues of irresponsibility and neglect in much harsher terms than the U.S. In fact, the Japanese have long been known as a group in which personal sacrifice (even suicide) is encouraged as part of one’s display of grief, regret and responsibility sharing. Their culture is quick to issue apology after apology and show deep humiliation for their transgressions. Unfortunately in this latest episode, just simply apologizing repeatedly will not be enough to satisfy the tremendous harm and lack of sensitivity to those who have long prized the Toyota brand as the standard of the global auto market.
Congress has finally worked itself into a full-throated frenzy over the recent series of recalls by the world’s No. 1 auto producer. I use the word “finally” because any time Americans are continuously dying as a result of businesses cutting corners, it’s our government’s job to step in quickly and address the problem. I know many of you have been a little less than satisfied with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s responses in recent months to these recalls. It’s almost as if the agency and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wanted to look the other way as Toyota officials fixed its problems on their own; hoping the issue would quickly dissipate from the national conversation. Yet the longer drivers waited for their Corollas to be repaired, the more we learned about other problems along the manufacturer’s complete line of autos. Could they not blatantly see and understand that not addressing this cover up immediately would lead to the loss of more lives and seriously jeopardizing the welfare of the Toyota brand drivers? Do you think that they were so cold and callous that it didn’t matter if their consumers were injured or killed in a collision? Isn’t it unbelievable that they continuously refused to take any responsibility and blame everyone except themselves until they had to face the grim realities of their dirty little secrets in manufacturing these automobiles?
Contemplate the flip side of my argument. A 100 percent safe car is impossible to build. As a manufacturer approaches 100 percent safety, the manufacturing costs increase exponentially. The real question is what is the customer (or society) willing to pay for safety as it approaches 100 percent safe. Most consumers would be willing to pay $20,000 for a car that is 99.8 percent safe but not $100,000 for a car that is 99.9 percent safe. Are the customers wrong? How would they react to Washington bureaucrats telling them they had to pay an additional $80,000 for an incremental 1/10 of 1 percent of safety?
Last week Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda testified before a congressional oversight panel, prepared to take full responsibility for any safety problems in his company’s vehicles. His group’s president said as much, and the company has been in full damage control for weeks now trying to reassure drivers their cars are safe to be on the road. But they’re not safe. And no amount of elevator music and soothing announcer talk can mitigate those realities. People are dying! Which only leads me to believe there’s full-scale corruption at Toyota where profits trump safety, and cutting corners means the company stays on top. That’s a false claim of auto hegemony, and Mr. Toyoda should be ashamed.
My gripe is: Japanese culture calls for humiliating apologies first, which is fine, if not somewhat hollow. But I have yet to see any real identification of the systemic problems with Toyota’s cars, let alone concrete solutions that will fix them. In his remarks before the congressional panel, Toyota President Yoshimi Inaba described in detail his company’s recall efforts, but offered little-to-no details on the root causes of the recalls in the first place. What was wrong with the throttles, Mr. Inaba? And what are you doing to fix them that would make us feel safe? It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry.” Not when folks are still dying. Does he know what a terrible feeling of helplessness a mother feels when she goes to brake her car, only to feel no resistance at all? No stopping power? How does one get behind a wheel after such an incident, let alone another Toyota?
By now it’s evident Toyota no longer has a financial/public relations problem. No, it’s presently in the midst of a serious crisis that goes to the heart of public safety. They are, in effect, manufacturing killing machines. And until they can address and solve this problem in a forthright, transparent and sincere manner, they shouldn’t be allowed to sell any cars in the U.S. Period. Hyundai certainly appreciates the gravity of this situation. Last Monday, new Sonata customers complained of a faulty door latch, and by the next day, assembly of the cars had halted, pending further study. Hyundai officials took the situation at face value, and cared more about their customers than seeing if they could skirt around the safety concern and hope no one would get hurt.
I’m a huge fan of the private sector, and for good reason. It keeps this country employed, thriving and moving into the 21st century of innovation. But when businesses abuse the privileges and rights government grants them to serve consumers and customers alike — to the point of jeopardizing lives — a line must be drawn. I only hope no more lives will be lost before Toyota learns a valuable lesson: American safety isn’t worth any cultural quest to be the best in the business.