Oh no, Toyota (NYSE: TM ) . Now you've gone and blown it again.
You were doing so well for a while, too. After the unintended-acceleration debacle peaked earlier this year with that epic Congressional inquisition and that whopping $16.4 million fine from the U.S. government, you -- finally! -- made a big point of going all humble. You put your CEO, Akio Toyoda, out in public to shed a few tears, eat some crow, and put a human face on your soulless transportation-appliance-manufacturing empire.
And that -- plus a huge incentives blitz -- worked, kind of. You're still trailing General Motors and Ford (NYSE: F ) in U.S. sales, but you're afloat. Car shoppers aren't avoiding you like the plague like they were back in February, when they were wondering whether Honda (NYSE: HMC ) would race past you.
But then you came out and blamed the victims of most of those unintended acceleration incidents.
Way to take responsibility, guys! Not.
Blaming the victims? Really?
Here's the background: Tuesday's Wall Street Journal brought a report of "early results" from the Department of Transportation's examination of data recorders from Toyotas involved in accidents blamed on unintended acceleration. According to the Journal:
The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings -- part of a broad, ongoing federal investigation into Toyota's recalls -- don't exonerate the car maker from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: "sticky" accelerator pedals that don't return to idle and floor mats that can trap accelerators to the floor.
So "some drivers" were apparently hitting the gas when they meant to hit the brakes. But -- as the Journal goes on to point out -- the investigation isn't over, and there's still a very real possibility that Toyota's onboard computers have an insidious programming flaw that hasn't yet been uncovered.
Still, I don't think anyone will be surprised if it turns out that some of these cases were in fact attributable to driver error. People make boneheaded mistakes in cars all the time, and one can see how boneheaded mistakes made in, say, one's spouse's new Lexus might get blamed on the car -- particularly if its manufacturer is getting public heat for unintended-acceleration incidents.
But here's the part that gets me: Bloomberg followed up the Journal's report by chatting with a Toyota spokesperson, who said that the company's own investigation showed that "virtually all" of the crashes blamed on unintended acceleration were in fact attributable to -- you guessed it -- driver error.
It's not our fault, in other words. The problem is that our customers are morons.
Dude, even if that's true ...
...it was a huge mistake to say it. At least, in those specific words.
I've argued before (and I'm hardly the only one) that Toyota's arrogance got it into trouble in the first place. Akio Toyoda's roadshow -- the humble-pie performance in front of Congress, the tearful speeches, even the feel-good investment in Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) -- was all part of getting past that. It aimed to show that Toyota was human, was listening, was acknowledging its mistakes, and was going to be more careful and responsible in the future.
But now, the company's right back to the it-can't-be-our-fault routine that did so much damage to oits reputation around the world. Now, it might eventually prove true that driver idiocy caused most of these accidents. But declaring that to be the case before the investigations are completed won't help Toyota's cause, particularly if the investigation's results turn out to contradict the automaker's statement.
What do you think? Did Toyota just take a giant step backwards in its rehabilitation efforts, or am I overreacting? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.
Read more Foolish auto coverage: