Toyota Recalls: Still trying to steer clear of trouble

By Andy Cuerel

The Guardian 12/3/2012There are some things in life that can always be relied on: night following day is a fair bet, Chelsea football club managers rotating with a similar frequency is another, and to this list we now seemingly add vehicle recalls care of the Toyota Motor Corporation.

This blog reported only last month on Toyota’s praiseworthy handling of recent issues regarding faulty electric window switches, a comparative tiddler at 7.4 million vehicles recalled worldwide – compared to the 2009 ‘unintended acceleration’ issue affecting 12 million. Whilst due praise is deserved for prompt action, transparency and superior consumer communication, it is nonetheless the latest in a series of vehicle failures resulting in a combined total of 22 million vehicles subject to recall since 2009, the vast majority of which involved safety issues affecting accelerators, brakes, electrics, fuel lines and as of mid-November 2012, steering and engine cooling.

So do we surmise from this that Toyota’s quality control has deteriorated further? More likely the opposite is the case: a determined zero tolerance policy on residual defects, however unlikely that they will lead to the fatalities and injuries experienced in 2009. Whilst this pursuit of excellence is laudable and entirely in line with the ‘supporting safety above profit’ mantra (‘supporting safety for enhanced profit’ would perhaps be more truthful), it doesn’t change the fact that Toyota is becoming synonymous with automotive recall.

A brief desk study reveals that nearly 90% of the first 100 results from a Google search on the phrase ‘global vehicle recall’ relate directly to Toyota, the remaining 10% are mainly non-specific to any manufacturer. A search of coverage on Toyota in the London Evening Standard since early 2010 (not a particularly car-centric title, with a readership composed almost entirely of public transport users), returns no less than 5 separate articles relating to recalls, compared to zero coverage on Ford during the same period. However, Which figures for the UK car industry since 2006 record 29 recalls for Ford against 24 for Toyota. In fact, this particular league table places Toyota 8th behind a variety of manufacturers, 1st place being ‘awarded’ to Citroen with no less than 66 separate issues, most of which have either slipped the net, or come and gone with little harm done to the brand.

A significant amount of coverage on Toyota’s recalls inevitably includes phrases such as ‘yet another’ and ‘the latest in a long line of’, and there in lies the core issue: they burnt their fingers with a badly-handled big one in 2009 and it’s not stopped haunting them since. This is building block news and by its nature is attritional to the brand.

It is unlikely, baring another safety catastrophe, that this giant of Japanese industry will fail, but it needs to pursue its incident avoidance targets with the same vigour as its more reactive policy of zero defect tolerance, in order to avoid the perception that ‘right first time’ is unattainable. In short, it needs to break this cyclical trend of safety related recalls and if it does so, the corresponding linked coverage will also reduce – ethical policies and transparent communication, whilst vitally important, cannot alone save the day.

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