One Right Down the Smokestack

Brian Cooley is an editor-at-large at's sister site, CNET.

Automotive recalls are very common. Cars are complicated machines that will expose some weaknesses only after millions of miles in the field. (If only your computer or smart phone were anywhere near as well made.) But most are "customer satisfaction" issues that don't or barely sniff at a real safety problem. As a result, owners often ignore them due to the inconvenience of a service call in an era when cars barely need service at all.

That won't be the case for Toyota.

Between the jamming floor mats and bad accelerator pedal linkages, this company has undertaken the largest auto recall ever, halted work at five factories, had many of its cars pulled from rental fleets, stopped sales of those same models at dealers and handed a million newscasts a story that tells easily in a couple of scary sound bites seasoned with the tasty relish of seeing #1 fall flat on its face.

Now we'll really learn what Toyota is about. How it handles these recalls and, as importantly, its responsibility for the issue even before it is conclusively proven to be its fault is the real proof of the company's meaning in the marketplace – made even more important as it struggles to build out of its first money losing year.

So far the indications are mostly good. In addition to applying massive resources to the recall fixes, Toyota's U.S. head, Jim Lentz, has a largely genuine sounding mea culpa on YouTube and unlike Ford and Firestone did when Explorers began blowing tires and snaprolling on U.S. highways a decade ago, Toyota has scrupulously avoided getting into an acidulous pissing match with the company that makes the parts at issue.

That will happen privately.

This mess could have happened to any of the vaunted Japanese car brands, but for Toyota it's an absolute 100% bullseye on its brand. Honda is known for efficient cars, Nissan for ostensibly sporty ones, and Subaru for being the Swedish car of Japan.

But Toyota's message is quality and reliability, period. There's no diverting the story with some other aspect of their product, they must attack it head on.

Just as business school geeks study Toyota as the pinnacle of the Japanese industrial principle of kaizen for constant improvement of product and method, so they will soon study the company's response to this crisis and the technical and engineering causes beneath it.

Here is where the company and its dealers must really earn the #1 spot that it raced to almost incredibly quickly over the last few years. We'll be watching, as you can bet will be Ford and GM.

If you have a Toyota involved in the recall and want to share your experience at the dealership, Cooley wants to hear how it went. Email him at:

  • Brian Cooley On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Brian Cooley joined CNET in 1995 and always comes at technology from the real consumer's point of view. He brings his high energy, often skeptical style to all avenues of CNET coverage, with an emphasis on car tech. You'll also find him frequently on television, radio and the TV screens at Costco!