Toyota at the crossroads: Digging out or digging a deeper hole?

Toyota just can’t catch a break these days, further indication that the end of its crisis is still far off.

On a day when Toyota struck back hard (shades of Harry Pearce) at what it sees as a bogus demonstration of its vehicles’ alleged electronic throttle control defect, California Highway Patrolmen had to perform a high-speed rescue of a run-away Prius. News reports did not miss the irony.

The Toyota logo (faceless man in a sombrero?) has seen better days.

Toyota had seemed to score points with a satellite-uplinked news conference expose that succeeded in creating doubts about the legitimacy of Southern Illinois University professor Gilbert’s demonstration, performed for the benefit of an investigating Congressional committee and broadcast by ABC News. Some media compared Toyota’s offensive to former GM vice chairman Pearce’s 1993 courtroom style demolition of an NBC Dateline report “demonstrating” the supposed tendency of GM pickups to burst into flames when involved in an otherwise non-lethal collision (but, as Pearce made clear to a roomful of journalists, Dateline had ensured a fiery result with remotely ignited model rocket engines hidden under the truck). Pearce’s news conference was first-rate high-drama–in fact, I use it as the opening scene in my book Feeding Frenzy on the Ford-Firestone tire crisis. But it is a hard act to emulate, and Toyota’s media offensive today didn’t quite measure up. Toyota did score some points by showing that the professor’s science project would also cause competitive cars to speed up wildly, and most seemed to buy Toyota’s conclusion that the unwelcome result of this contrived interference would be highly unlikely to ever happen in the real world. But, really, Toyota could only cast doubt on the validity of Gilbert’s demonstration; they did not debunk it.

And then there was that runaway Prius, a most unwelcome intrusion into the news cycle Toyota hoped to own. Prius is not subject to the ”sticky  gas pedal” recall. So unless today’s near-accident was caused by a loose floormat, Toyota will have a hard time explaining what did cause it. No less an electronics expert than Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak believes his Prius’ fits of unexpected acceleration has been caused by an electronic glitch.

Toyota continues to insist there is no credible evidence of electronic malfunction in its cars. Yet, to its credit, Toyota says it continues to conduct its root cause investigations without limitations. It must resist the natural temptation to prove what it so wants to be true, that there is no electronic problem, and conduct a thorough investigation without prejudice or preconceptions. The lives and well-being of its millions of customers are at stake, and every other consideration pales in importance.

Not looking hard enough for the true root cause would be almost as bad as hiding a problem it knows to exist. Then no crisis communications master-stroke, even one trumping anything ever accomplished by Harry Pearce, will be able to win back public trust in Toyota.

- Jon Harmon

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