Toyota takes steps to improve image

New panel of experts to call shots on recalls

by Hiroko Nakata

TOYOTA, Aichi Pref. — With its reputation severely damaged by safety issues, Toyota Motor Corp. announced several steps Tuesday to improve its image, including the establishment of a panel of regional and local quality-control executives that will call the shots on recalls and other steps.

The committee, which held its first meeting Tuesday, will also share global information on claims, defects and recalls more speedily, Toyota said.

“We need to assert a renewed commitment to ‘customer first’ in reviewing all our work processes from a customer perspective,” President Akio Toyoda told the regional and local heads at the start of the meeting at the company’s headquarters. “Let this gathering today be our first step. Let us share first-person insights and hold constructive debate. Let us make the most of this invaluable opportunity.”

Toyoda has faced mounting criticism that the world’s largest automaker has been too slow to react to the massive recalls and accident claims around the globe.

The company also intends to strengthen its on-site information-gathering capabilities in regard to suspected quality problems. The automaker plans to increase the number of technology offices in North America to seven from one, and set up seven new offices in Europe, six in China and more in other regions.

As for its operations in North America, Toyota will cooperate with local authorities to expand the use of its “black box” data recorders, which can provide clues on vehicle operation and driver performance in the wake of accidents, it said.

The automaker will have third-party experts from each region, including one in North America headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, evaluate quality-improvement measures on a regional basis. It also will enlist four third-party experts to review any improvement measures adopted by the special committee for global quality and release the results of its initial review in June.

To train its global staff in quality issues, Toyota said it will set up a string of “CF” (customer first) training centers by July in Japan, North America, Europe, Southeast Asia and China to cultivate quality professionals in each region, the company said.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles in recent months for sticky accelerator pedals, floor mats that can jam pedals and braking software glitches found in the latest Prius model and other gasoline-electric hybrid cars.

Toyota, whose quality control regime had long been respected as a model for other Japanese manufacturers, conducted a tour of its headquarters Tuesday to explain its quality-control efforts to about 120 foreign and Japanese journalists. Employees showed how the firm probes for parts defects using CT scans and uses other machines to simulate heavy rain or freezing or soaring temperatures to test how vehicles work in extreme conditions.

“In addressing recent quality problems, I really came to understand that products are our lifeline. If we can regain customer trust in our quality, we can increase production volumes and regain profits.” Toyoda said afterward. “Then, everything can work positively.”

Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, has acknowledged that he may not have been fast enough in responding to claims against its vehicles. The automaker’s prospects are still not clear because it is expected to face billions of dollars in costs from a series of lawsuits being filed by U.S. consumers.