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In 2008, Toyota faced an embarrassing problem: The Imperial Family’s luxury Century Royal, used to carry Crown Prince Naruhito around Japan, was a dud. Memos flew back and forth between managers and senior engineers trying to find the cause of what appeared to be a speed-control fault. “This is a very difficult situation,” fretted one engineer. “The Imperial Household Agency feels there is risk if it should recur.”

The unspoken concern was clear: What if a crash hurt or even killed Japan’s heir to the Imperial throne?

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