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Toyota reels on recalls

It's early days yet for the full impact on consumer confidence down under.

Every day there seems to be something new, from extra customer complaints to a damaging internal document which points to deliberate delaying tactics on the safety front.  The total cost of the fiasco is likely to be around $2 billion in lost sales, but no-one can yet say what the safety disaster - everything from faulty accelerator pedals to steering complaints on the Corolla and a brake drama on the Prius - will eventually cost the company in long-term respect.

Even in Australia, where Toyota has been largely insulated from the safety problems, apart from the 1700 Prius owners who got a computer tweak to their car's brakes, there are people who are worried about buying a car from the company. And it's early days yet for the full impact on consumer confidence down under.

Things are so bad internationally that Akio Toyoda, only recently installed in the top job, will head to Washington to represent Toyota in congressional hearings into the safety failings.  Toyoda is seen as the 'new broom' at the world's largest carmaker, with the potential to turn the company into more than just a brand that mass-produces cars for people who put transport ahead of personality or style. He is already pushing cars like the FT-86 concept, which is expected to be a born-again Sprinter for Gen-Y when it reaches production in 2011.

But even he could be tainted, just as Australia's Jac Nasser - once the shooting star at the Ford Motor Company - was brought undone by the unsuccessful campaign to protect the Ford Explorer from a safety crisis in the USA.

Toyota has reacted with things like a brake-against-throttle safety switch, but other brands have had that protection against a runaway for years.  It has also set up a new global committee for product quality, which will be chaired by Toyoda, but people are asking why it was not done before.

The reason is simple: the Toyota production system is designed to stop faults and flaws before the factory gates. It's so good that it has been copied around the world, and by many companies outside the auto business, for decades.

But the safety shortcomings highlighted by the multi-million-vehicle safety recalls show the system is only as good as the people who run it. And Toyota has been caught short.  The Toyota safety story has a long way to run and I am not expecting much good news for a long while yet.