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I don't see Toyota as an infallible company that never makes mistakes.
-- Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, Tuesday
Yeah, no kidding, huh?
Setting aside the violation of the first rule of recall announcements (make 'em on Friday afternoon so that articles like this one run on Saturday morning when nobody's paying attention), this morning's announcement that a Prius recall will be added to Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) mounting pile of woes was not at all a mistake.
In fact, in a backhanded sort of way, it counts as a good move.
Sure, the news that Toyota's iconic hybrid models have a software glitch that can cause a delay in braking under certain conditions isn't exactly welcome, and the timing of this recall -- on top of all of Toyota's other woes, and adding up to 8.5 million vehicles recalled so far -- is far from ideal.
But at least they're owning up to this one in semiprompt fashion.
Are they finally getting a clue?
Look, recalls are a fact of life in the auto business. As anyone who has ever worked on a complex product of any kind knows, no matter how much testing you do or how good your engineers are, every now and then a flaw only shows up after a product is in production.
This happens to every company -- even brilliant ones like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , which is currently struggling with problems on its big (and expensive) 27-inch iMac's display. Of course, when it happens with a car, it can be a major safety issue. That's why the recall system exists, and most every consumer-products company gets hit with one once in a while.
It's one thing to be discreet when a recall is required -- that Friday afternoon business really is what most companies seem to do. But for years, Toyota wasn't discreet; they were in denial. From engine sludge problems (way back in 2002) that they tried to blame on drivers, to the unintended-acceleration mess, which they blamed variously on drivers and on loose floor mats until recently, Toyota has given the impression of a company that isn't willing to be forthcoming -- or to take action -- about safety issues with its products.
That impression is starting to build steam in the public mind. And competitors are already responding.
Nice lunch. Mind if we eat it?
They don't call the auto business "cutthroat" for no reason. Ford (NYSE: F ) and General Motors are already looking to feast on Toyota's woes with sales campaigns that give discounts to buyers trading in a Toyota. Ford's campaign includes discounts for Honda (NYSE: HMC ) vehicles, too For its part, Honda is starting to worry that Toyota's problems could dampen the U.S. market's enthusiasm for its products as well. January's sales numbers certainly weren't good news for Toyota, but whether that was a blip or the start of a major market-share realignment remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, even if Toyota is finally (finally!) changing its ways, this PR disaster is still far from over. It's a variation of the Chicken Little problem; deny the sky is falling for long enough, and nobody will believe you when you say it finally fell. If the unintended-acceleration problem wasn't due to the floor mats, as you claimed last year, why should we believe that it was due to a gas pedal part, as you claimed last week?
Why shouldn't we believe that it's a software problem, for instance?
That's the question a lot of folks are asking. And those folks include Congress, who will be holding the first of several public hearings on the issue later this month. I expect that to be an uncomfortable session for the star witness, Toyota North America CEO Yoshimi Inaba, as House members in high dudgeon look to score points against a company that seems to be edging closer and closer to a huge backlash.
How bad will all this get? Stay tuned.