Did Toyota really do anything wrong? It’s hard to know. Infrequent, intermittent problems, especially electrical ones, are almost impossible to diagnose. You have to catch the criminal in the act, which is hard to do when the criminal is a packet of five or six electrons that turned left instead of right three layers down in a one-inch square of compressed sand.
I’d like to be sympathetic. In the 1980s, Audi was almost killed by a rash of sudden acceleration complaints that turned out to be caused entirely by driver error. At the time, Audis were particularly popular among seniors, who apparently are more likely than other drivers to stomp on the gas instead of the brake (although no more likely than anyone else to admit it).
Of course, it gets harder to be sympathetic when you consider the rash of recalls, going well beyond the accelerator issue, that Toyota has issued in the last few weeks. This might just be a case of bad luck and uneven distribution, but that’s gotten hard to believe.
Still, in the weeks since Toyota’s safety issues first became big news, Honda, GM and Nissan have all issued major recalls, and none of them has been pasted in the press the way Toyota was.
So what’s going on?
The issue, of course, is not whether the cars are safe, but rather what Toyota knew and when they knew it. The other car companies just went ahead and issued recalls, while Toyota gave every appearance of having to be goaded into it by the government. That cost Toyota trust, which it now has to rebuild.
And that’s where things get interesting, because the apology ads that Toyota has been running make a peculiar distinction.
The good guys, the engineers and mechanics who’ve been working night and day to find cures and fix cars, are referred to as “Us.” The bad guy, who sold those unsafe cars, stonewalled complaints and. . . well. . . killed people, is referred to as “Our Company.” Thus: “We’re working hard to restore your faith in our company.”
Well, wait a minute. Exactly who is “Your Company” if it isn’t you?
I find those ads completely jarring. I’d be interested in hearing from someone who knows Japan as to whether there’s a bona fide cultural reason for the distinction. To my American ears, it sounds like the language of responsibility avoidance. What I (and I suspect most Americans) expect to hear is “We’re working hard to restore your faith in us.”
Trust requires accountability, the willingness to acknowledge your actions and accept the consequences of them, both good and bad. The language of responsibility starts with “I did.”
And a culture of accountability starts at the top. Which has me wondering what words are going through Akio Toyoda’s mind these days.