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Toyota struggles to stop runaway crisis 'Sudden acceleration' issues create gauntlet of troubles

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Toyota struggles to stop runaway crisis

'Sudden acceleration' issues create gauntlet of troubles

Remarkable doesn't begin to describe what's happening to Toyota Motor Corp.

Its reputation for delivering safe, reliable, quality-engineered vehicles is in tatters. Governments from Tokyo to Washington, clearly on the muscle, are pressuring the automaker to act openly and quickly. Toyota's executives, corporate culture and dealer body, each touted by apologists for their ability to do no wrong, are struggling to manage a crisis that is expanding faster than they can keep up.

And now the Japanese juggernaut's trend-setting Prius, the gas-electric hybrid that burnished the company's green image with the Hollywood set, Silicon Valley hotshots and the coastal political elite, is under investigation on two continents for braking problems.

With so much happening so fast -- expanding recalls, new investigations, a startling mea culpafrom a top Toyota engineer, the U.S. government's aggressive posture -- the automaker is speeding toward a potentially fraught crossroads: How long have they known and why didn't they do something about it sooner?

The implications of this "sudden acceleration" morass are likely to be profound for Toyota, its corporate reputation and its standing in the global auto business. For Detroit? Huge for a town whose auto industry is just getting off its collective knees as its arch-rival appears to be getting mired ever deeper in a double-whammy of suspect credibility and dodgy quality.

Bad enough is the official stuff of recalls, government oversight and congressional hearings, market share loss and declining residual values of everything from Camry and Corolla sedans to Tundra pickups and Highlander crossovers.

Even worse: Influential shapers of public opinion -- comedians from Jon Stewart to David Letterman -- are joining the metastasizing fray. Exhibit No. 1 is a segment on Stewart's "The Daily Show," aired Tuesday on Comedy Central, dubbed "Toyotathon of Death."

"Boys, we're back in the game," he said, framed by logos of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC. "All we had to do was have the leading competition become a deathtrap. I guess the point is, if you're driving a Toyota, you most likely can't stop."

Not good. Stripped of the engineering-ese proffered by Toyota's chief quality officer, Shinichi Sasaki, and customer-service doublespeak from Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, Stewart pretty much nails it: Mounting cases of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and complaints of suspect brakes in the 2010 Prius hybrids are all about one thing -- can you stop your Toyota?

That the question can legitimately be asked, whether by a cable-channel comic or a congressional committee, suggests just how serious this predicament is for Toyota. After all, this is the reputed gold standard, the industry benchmark that exploited the opening offered by the self-inflicted stumble and fall of Detroit to bid for the title of world's largest automaker.

Until it stumbled itself, forced to slow production at six North American plants, to stop sales of eight models and to endure a media gantlet probably just getting warmed up. So much for the free ride that can come with gangbuster business results.

Now, they've got camera crews showing CEO Akio Toyoda, scion of the founding family, ducking comment. Lentz, the ranking American executive, is openly contradicted by the secretary of transportation. Comics are trashing the brand; media coverage is gathering steam; dealers are contending with frustrated customers.

And an influential Silicon Valley techie, Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak, is publicly saying he's been trying to bring concerns about his Prius to the attention of Toyota and the feds but got brushed aside.

"I don't know a way to get heard," he said Monday at the Discovery Forum in San Francisco. "This new model has an accelerator that goes wild, but only under cruise control. I can repeat it over and over again, safely. It's in the software."

This story is approaching a tipping point, morphing from the bungling of a massive automotive recall into a cultural phenomenon with enormous commercial implications for Toyota and the auto industry. Also brewing: a battle with decidedly political overtones.

It's not insignificant that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is pushing back on Toyota, hard. Or that former heads of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are using on-the-record comments to drive home the point that concerns with Toyota models suddenly accelerating are longstanding and that Toyota has been slow to address them.

Or that, like it or not, the feds are sounding aggressive when the Treasury Department owns a controlling stake in Toyota rival GM, and Toyota's nemesis -- Team Obama's ally, the United Auto Workers -- holds a majority stake in Chrysler through the union's health care trust fund.

Remarkable? That's not even the half of it.

From The Detroit News:


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