Toyota: Accelerating Problems

Over the last three decades, Toyota built its reputation around admired American traits: durability, reliability, and affordability. In 2008, Toyota became the number-one vehicle manufacturer in the world. The cars passed from one generation to the next because of confidence in the vehicles' reliability. With product line diversification, Toyotas became “the every car for everyone.”1 As Americans felt let down by the Big Three American car companies (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler), Toyota provided reliable cars that drivers desired.

On August 28, 2009, an accident on a San Diego highway involving a Lexus (a Toyota brand) threatened this ascendency. It began with the airing of a horrifying 911 call from a passenger in a Lexus ES350 with a jammed accelerator. A veteran California Highway Patrol officer, driving three family members, lost control of the vehicle after the throttle stuck open. The car accelerated to high speed, hit another vehicle, rolled over several times, and burst into flames. The call ended with the sound of a crash. All four people in the vehicle were killed.

Toyota executives hoped this accident was a unique situation and responded with a wait-and-see approach. Only after the accident totals reached significant numbers did the recalls begin. What makes this story such a shocking one is “the vapor lock that seems to have seized Toyota's mythologized corporate culture and turned one of the most admired companies ...

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