Message to Toyota: Google "Audi Acceleration Problem" Right Now

Watching Toyota wrestle with its major recall and manufacturing suspension due to gas pedal problems reminds me of the similar trouble that befell Audi in 1989, when its flagship 5000 had similar issues that threatened to destroy the brand entirely. From an article in the Chicago Sun Times at the time:


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday it has closed a three-year investigation of so-called "sudden acceleration" in Audi 5000 models, saying driver error was the major source of the problem.
"The major cause appears to have been drivers' unknowingly stepping on the accleratator instead of the brake pedal," NHTSA said.
Reports of sudden accleration, in which a car inexplicably surges forward while still in park or at low speeds, were devastating to Audi's U.S. sales. They dropped from 74,000 in 1984 to 23,000 last year.


Of course, Audi did not meet its demise as a result, but became a very quiet brand for many years after that while they not only re-examined their engineering and production, but vowed to come back smarter, stronger, and more relevant than before, a feat that clearly has been achieved. The Audi brand is considerably more valuable today than it would have been if the company and the brand did not have their "time of reflection" following the accelerator problem.

Similarly, the runaway success of Toyota models such as the Camry and the Prius in the last decade apparently contributed to this recent problem, as engineers took their eye off the ball in deference to sales imperatives. What the company's marketing executives probably didn't notice was that the Camry was becoming a very boring car, while the Prius and its legions of eco-smug drivers were building up negative sentiment in the marketplace. The combination of ho-hum and buzz off has been building slowly over the past few years, and with this gas pedal revelation, the shine has suddenly come off of the Toyota brand, which used to be synonymous with innovation, quality, and style. In the Economist today, a report on the automakers problems shows that at least one key part of Toyota management understands the depth of the problem:

The sense of alarm sweeping Toyota found a voice last October. Akio Toyoda, the company’s boss since June and grandson of Toyota’s founder, gave a stark warning about the firm's spiral of decline to a group of astounded Japanese journalists. At least he also recognises that Toyota has to make more exciting vehicles. But the firm needs to rebuild its reputation for rock-solid reliability too. The drastic step of halting vehicle production in America is sure to set back that aim for a long while.

We'll see if the Japanese are able to take a German approach to the problem, and restore this brand to prominence through patience and determination, or whether their shame will overwhelm rational thinking.

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