What Toyota should do

Including my parents, we own four Toyotas in my family; over time, we’ve probably owned eight or 10. Will we ever buy another? Depends. Depends on whether we can trust the company given its performance lately.

There’s a reason we bought our Toyotas. They are incredibly reliable. I abuse mine, skipping service calls. But — knock wood — I’ve not had any major problems. So even though I don’t much like Toyota design and — as a professor, can no longer afford to pay for that styling with the Lexus brand — I thought I was pretty much stuck buying them forever. Why fix what’s not broken, eh?

But now we find out our Toyotas are broken. We find out that Toyota has known this for too long and done nothing. We call our dealer and get stonewalled about the problem with brakes in the Prius our son drives. Dealers in California drop ABC because it dared to report on the problems.

Didn’t these people read Cluetrain? (Should I send them a copy of What Would Google Do?)

Their behavior is all the more unforgivable because there are so many new tools to use to learn about and fix problems and keep customers informed — and because there have been so many lessons from other companies (start with Dell).

If Toyota were the trustworthy company, brand, and product I thought it was — if it is to regain my trust — I suggest:

The company should gather and publish openly a complete record of all repairs and reported problems for all its models. I hope to hell they’re doing this internally as a way to see when problems emerge. But if they don’t, we should. I’d love it if we had a carwiki where we could all do this with cars (and other products) to show trends and alert companies and — if they don’t respond — warn customers. Think of it as a SeeClickFix for our stuff.

When Hyundai entered the U.S. and had plenty of reliability problems, it extended its warranty to 10 years and that, today, is a selling point. In the age of open and social data, Toyota could regain its perch as a reliable brand by becoming the open brand, by making reliability a collaborative effort.

I think the company should also reengineer its cars for regular updates, like phones. Mind you, in my book — and when I discuss my likely next book, Beta — I am always quick to caution that I don’t want to drive the beta car or fly in the beta jet. When safety is an issue, perfection has to be the goal.

But we know that there can always be improvements. Nothing’s perfect. My Nexus One worked but after getting its update — automatically — on Friday, it works better and does more. In many of their systems, cars could operate similarly.

The problem with the Prius brakes is in its software. An update will allegedly fix it. Priuses sold last month had the update. Why the hell wasn’t the update pushed out to every Prius? Why did we have to argue with our dealer about this? Because it’s treated as a problem, a recall, a liability in both legal and PR terms. But if the culture of cars were like those of computers and phones — if they could get updates automatically — then it would be less of a big deal: Problem found, problem solved, asap. Improvement suggested, improvement implemented, anytime.

I wish we could drive our cars up to our home wi-fi or the nearest Starbucks (or dealer … or even my mobile phone) and connect to get updates and improvements. If that were possible — if that’s how many problems were solved — then cars would be engineered differently, operating as much as possible under drive-by-wire and nodes of a network.

When we talked about this yesterday, my colleague Peter Hauck blanched at the idea that cars could be hacked. Yes, I can see new plotlines for TV detective shows or even 24: at the stroke of midnight, the hacker’s worm has every car in America turn right, stop, and go into reverse (not-so-subtle metaphor there).

Yet by opening up, car companies can not only discover problems but fix them — and improve their cars. Look at what is happening at Local Motors as members of the community collaborate to design cars and even make economic decisions about them. Now just as I always give my caveat about the beta car, I also always have to issue my caveat about the democratic car: I don’t want design by vote — I don’t want the Homer Simpsonmobile — but I do think the smart car company would be open to the smarts of its drivers. I’ll bet that the community of Toyota drivers could find problems faster than the company and suggest fixes and suggest improvements.

So, Toyota, you can issue overdue recalls and then apologize until you’re blue in the face but that won’t regain my trust. You have to do something bold and become the first car company that enables its community of drivers. If you don’t do it, I’ll bet Ford will.

  • Troy Hostetler

    I wonder if ire would not be a call to all auto makers, not only Toyota Toyota still has a great record for safety, reliability, good tech, hybrids, and customer service and this will pass and they will learn from this lesson or be replaced in the market by competition. I have brand loyalty and high expectations and have not shared the view that this has been a disaster for the Company. Perhaps they won’t recover, that would the mistake.

  • Brian Gillespie

    Automatic updates fabulous.
    I can see the news headline today. “Terrorists turn Freeways into bloodbath”
    This morning during rush hour a car computer virus pressed the accelerator on all moving Toyota’s while simultaneously disabling both the brakes using the vehicles ABS systems and the passive restraint systems, turning the morning commute into a deadly version of bumper cars. About 15 minutes later as Rescue crews responded to the macabre scenes another wave of runaway vehicles played havoc on the Freeways using Ford’s Sync system to infect their cars. Al Qaeda claimed credit in a video released minutes later.

  • http://web.fccj.edu/~jposey Jake Posey

    I could not agree more. While automatic updates may have problems, it is a great jumping off point for a brainstorm. As a consumer, I recently switched to Toyota and have owned three of them. Depending on how Toyota handles this, I may or may not buy their brand in the future. I still cringe when I have to buy a car that has Firestone/Bridgestone tires because of Firestone’s response in the Ford Explorer issue.

  • http://photos.fredericton365.com Robert

    I took the following photo a few days ago. It kind of says it all:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertvinet/4336225428/

  • TopTrendingTopics

    There were so many people talking about Toyota on Twitter that it was one of the top trending topics for a while – check out the video at http://www.joshrimer.com/super-bowl-itkillsme-toyota/ to see some of the more entertaining ones in a funny video. :-)

  • James Robertson

    … and reporters should at least ask how much of a conflict of interest is involved in the government (owners of GM and Chrysler) attacking their biggest competitor.

    Is that a real issue? I have no idea. The problem is, no one reporting on it seems to be the least bit curious, either.

  • http://cellar.org Undertoad

    Automatic firmware updates for the car: never ever ever in a million years. Every firmware update should be followed by a professional test drive from a trained mechanic.

    The hacking component alone is horrific. Imagine a hacker locally spoofing Toyota’s update and inserting their own software.

    A bricked iPhone is one thing, a bricked vehicle is another…

  • http://twiter.com/TesTeq TesTeq

    So what? I have no problem with my one-year old Toyota. Millions of cars – tens of failures – I think it’s a pretty good result. US car manufactures are dreaming about such reliability. And you have to be a really bad driver if you are unable to press a brake pedal in case of the gas pedal problem.

  • http://derekkreindler.blogspot.com Derek Kreindler

    People have been hacking cars for years, it’s called modifications. Cars get “updates” too, they’re called mid-cycle refreshments. The Honda S2000 had a nasty flaw that caused snap oversteer when driven at the limit. The revision (the AP2 series, as opposed to the original cars AP1 designation) fixed this and added electronic stability control.

    I cannot state this enough, cars are not analogous to gadgets or software, but there can be a few similarities.

  • http://derekkreindler.blogspot.com/2010/01/honda-cr-z-is-not-crx-and-thats-ok.html Derek Kreindler

    By the way I have compiled complete recall data for Toyota, GM, Honda and Ford for the years 2000-2010, if you want it, let me know.

    • Tom Eardley

      Hello,
      Im doing a MSc in management and one of my assignments is based on Toyota and interested in seeing your compiled recall data for Toyota, GM, Honda and Ford from 2000 to 2010 is you still have it??

      Thanks

  • cm

    As an embedded software engineer I have an extremely cautious view of having software in the braking system at all. Sure micros these days are probably more reliable than the mechanical parts they replace, but the failure modes are more subtle.

    While some might be paranoid about hacking, I’m not. If anyone was really motivated to hack the firmware they could do so on the assembly line or such. Tthe more important issue is that modifications should be tested before being released back to the owners. User update via wifi is a seriously bad idea.

    Perhaps what Toyota should have done is just announce the issue and encourage drivers to go to any Toyota dealer to have a free coffee while the mechanic upgrades the software and does a 5-minute test drive.

    I’ve had 3 Toyotas. All have been unbelievably reliable and taken all sorts of abuse (no oil check for 20k miles etc). Here in NZ Toyota command a premium because of their brand value probably allowing them to charge 20% more.

    My newest car is a Kia. The reliability is as good as the Toyota and it cost about 20% less.How long with Toyota be able to maintain a badge premium?

  • http://TalkingNewMedia.com DBH / Talking New Media

    The automatic updates formula has potential in the media world, as well. Just as iPhone apps are regularly updated after purchase, media apps could follow the same principal. This would eliminate the concept of “issues” and substitute this with versions (standard, premium).

    Great post. It is sad to see Toyota in the process of destroying their brand. Transparency is the only thing that can help Toyota regain customer trust.

  • RaymondC

    While the software fix for the Prius brakes (similar to the fix Ford did for the Fusion Hybrid just recently) is easy to do, there’s still the issue of uncontrolled acceleration on other Toyota models.

    People forget that unlike cars with drive-by-wire throttles from almost everyone else, Toyota Engine Control Unit (ECU) computers does not cut the fuel supply during deceleration, which makes the engine vulnerable to a uncontrolled acceleration problem. Toyota hopefully will “reflash” the ECU code to allow for throttle cutoff during deceleration or end up replacing several MILLION ECU’s with new ones that does include throttle cutoff during deceleration–a fix that could run several BILLION dollars.

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  • Bill R.

    Toyota owners must seek justice. The company has run afoul of the law and shown absolutely no regard for the safety of their customers.

    Toyota led a dizzying array of misdirections and lies and despite all the recalls and public apologies, must answer for its actions in court.

    If you own a Toyota, you have a right to be there. Please visit this site to learn more about the company’s lies and denials spanning nearly a decade and what you can do as an owner: http://www.toyota-class-action-lawsuit.com/

  • dwmfrancis

    The link in the foregoing “plea for justice” leads to a web site by Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, a law firm specializing in negligence litigation and consumer fraud.
    (Beware the histrionic use of hyperbolic adjectives.) -df

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