Toyota: The Fix Is In—Maybe

Ad running in 20 major markets, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

The parts for fixing the sticking pedal problem are on the way, said Toyota on Monday, and dealers will begin installing them in affected cars this week. The company claimed to have found an “effective and simple” remedy, a steel shim to reduce friction. Jim Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. sales chief, went on the Today show with Matt Lauer to answer questions and express regret. We’ll show you the video and give you some analysis after the break.

The company also ran full-page newspaper ads in 20 major markets on Sunday.

Fallout for the recall and unintended acceleration problem focuses on three key issues: the technical side (what is the real problem or problems, and what did the company do to rectify them), the public side (what is the threat here, how can it be addressed, and who is responsible), and the financial side (to what extent has the issue damaged the company, and how will it recover). Let’s take a shot at each of these.

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First, nobody really knows whether the announced fix will resolve all the problems owners have experienced. In other words, no one knows the extent of the damage yet; that will take time and investigations by the company—and others, including Congress. Mr. Lentz carefully walked around this question while trying to reassure customers by saying the problem was caused only by floormats or pedal friction.

He also claimed that he and his family would not knowingly drive unsafe cars. Well, who would? And how far does that statement go to allay the fear, frustration and confusion out there? When a company is in this kind of hot water, the worst thing it can do is be vague. But that seems to be what the Sunday newspaper ad blitz conveyed.

President Akio Toyoda gave a 75-second apology in Davos, Switzerland, last week from the World Economic Forum. What a venue for expressing concern to millions of unhappy customers! Toyota stock lost at least 14 percent last week, and the company may well be on the hook for over $1 billion before this is over.

But the public response so far has been far too little and way too late. They lost an entire week. It’s past time for management to step up to the plate. Said David Welch in BusinessWeek,

Toyota’s top management will need to come forward and talk to the American public. CEO Akio Toyoda will have to step up, tell his customers and future car buyers that the company has this under control and that it won’t happen again. Toyota has decades of goodwill with the American public for selling them good cars, creating jobs and doling out millions of dollar [sic] on philanthropy projects. It’s up to the company to react and keep it that way.

Let’s hope they do that sooner rather than later.

How do you think Jim Lentz did in his interview on the Today show? No doubt, he was in the hot seat.

—jgoods

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6 Comments

  1. If consumers were smart and really wanted to push the envelope, they would ask for a “replacement” Denso unit rather than the shim fix. If I were in the market for a used Toyota with a history of the problem, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one with the Denso unit rather than one with the shim fix.
    As a seller of a used Toyota with the problem, I would also be concerned about the resale value of said unit whereas I would expect to get full resale value with Denso replacement.

  2. So lets get real about deaths here.
    Toyota in 10 years – 19 deaths related to the accelerator problem
    Other brands combined in 10 years – 10 deaths related to the accelerator problem

    Not sure where 1000 deaths would come from. As with any product, you can’t try it out without testing it. This is the same for any auto maker. This is of course urgent, so the testing will be up to the folks driving the cars. Since the problem was related to plastic deteriorating, the testing is time based.

  3. Lentz didn’t look or sound at all comfortable dancing, and he appeared to be almost smirking at the very beginning of the interview. And sorry, Jim, but there actually is a pretty big difference between 1 death and 1,000.

  4. Lentz did OK. But he still didn’t “guarantee” the shim fix on the pedal would make the car safe and danced around the questions about how long the company knew about the problems. I don’t think this interview will help much.

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