04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Toyota Coverup

I've been involved in the development of scores of technology products, and I can safely say that most of the products were shipped in spite of having design flaws, performance issues, or quality problems. (I'm not referring to safety issues, which would prevent a product from being shipped by law.)

Even in cases where we thought a product was perfect, problems would be discovered that we didn't find until after thousands of them were sold and used by customers, often in ways and under conditions never anticipated.

It's the natural consequence of developing products with all of their complexities of electronics, mechanics and software, compounded by the pressure to ship products quickly, and never being able to perfectly predict all the ways a product will be used.

In the case of most products, the serious problems are usually solved by improving the design once the engineers get feedback and figure out what to do. After all, it's neither economical nor a good business practice to keep shipping a defective product and having to cover the cost of repairs and returns.

This is true with automobiles, as well; they're one of the most complex products we'll ever buy. Even though a defect can be a life and death issue, and in spite of the best efforts of the engineers, even the most reliable cars are shipped with problems that surface after the sale, as we've recently seen with Toyota. If you have any doubt, look at the size of the auto dealers' service departments. They are there to perform routine service, but also to fix unexpected issues that always occur.

Some of the problems may take months to develop, may be experienced by only a tiny fraction of owners, and may surface only in unusual situations such as at extreme temperatures. While a huge amount of testing is done prior to the release of a new model, it can never cover all of the possible situations or detect a one-in-one-thousand occurrence.

Thus, companies typically pay close attention to the performance of their new cars, particularly the complaints from the early buyers and any accidents that occur. Engineers sit in on some of the initial customer phone calls, visit repair facilities, and study the detailed data that's compiled.

Companies have whole departments called "sustaining engineering," whose job is to continue to improve the design and address the products' deficiencies after they go on sale. Most customers don't expect perfection in their purchase, but they do expect problems to be promptly corrected.

In the case of Toyota, its recent problems are not that they occurred, but that the company failed to take quick action to fix them once they were discovered. Instead Toyota risked its reputation, built up painstakingly over five decades, by minimizing the seriousness of these issues, by not being forthcoming, and by covering them up.

From all of the evidence now coming to light, Toyota's instinct was not to fix the problems, but to minimize them, even negotiating with (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ) NHTSA to get them to ignore some of the reports. Safety of their customers was clearly not their top priority. So let's call it what it was: a coverup.

And the problem of unintended acceleration is not recent; it goes back seven years when the consumer complaints began, reaching 400 complaints in 2007, according to an analysis of NHTSA data by Reuters. Several earlier investigations by NHTSA resulted in two minor floor mat recalls.

There were many things Toyota could have done as running changes over all these years to reduce the risk to the customer, even if it wasn't sure of the cause of unintended acceleration. It could have moved the gas pedal higher to prevent any possibility of the car mats touching the pedal, or reduced the size of the mats themselves. It could have added a feature to disable the accelerator when the brake is hit with a high force, and it could have modified the starter button on keyless ignitions so you can turn the car off with a press of the button, and not the need to hold it for three seconds. But it did none of these because it never accepted the fact that there was a problem.

It's baffling that Toyota got into this situation. While some attribute it to Japanese culture, I don't accept that. It's the Japanese skills and perseverance in getting each detail right that has made their products so good. A coverup like this can just as easily occur in this country.
Toyota's reputation for building quality cars and holding the trust of its customers has now plummeted to a level that will cost it billions of dollars from recalls, the weakening of its brand, and lower sales. Their reputation will never return to where it once was.

My daughter was about to buy a new Prius; our extended family owns three Toyotas. She told me that she can no longer buy a Toyota, not because of any recalls facing the Prius or defects that will be fixed, but because she's disgusted with Toyota's behavior and can never trust them. I expect this is being repeated thousands of times each day.

What's ironic is Toyota still makes some of the most reliable cars in the world, and nearly every automotive manufacturer has experienced similar problems. But that matters less than that simple fact that Toyota didn't do the right thing when they were tested, and lost the public's confidence that it will do the right thing in the future.

Reprinted with permission from the San Diego Transcript Feb. 16, 2010