It has been almost 3 years since Toyota embarked on a collaborative partnership to address automobile safety. The Collaborative Safety Research Center in Ann Arbour Michigan has grown to include dozens of academic and social sector organizations united to improve the world of automobile safety. In the rearview mirror this is a rich collaborative exercise pursuing a noble cause. A web search for “Toyota” and “safety” in March 2014 will provide very important context to the venture as you sift through accounts of the $1.2B admission of wrongdoing that resulted in human deaths and in harsh criticism of the automakers modus operandi.
Often revered for its dogged focus on quality, the culture at Toyota contributed greatly to the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement and to many quality principles used pervasively today, not just in manufacturing, but in a variety of disciplines. It appears that “safety” somehow got uncoupled from “quality” with devastating results. When external perceptions don’t match the internal realities, the company has a PR problem. When an internal flaw has been exposed because of dire consequences to customers, the problem is different and much deeper.
Steven Berlin Johnson starts off his book Future Perfect discussing how progress in airplane safety has far outstripped progress in any other aspect of air travel. Statistics routinely tout air travel as safer than driving, and this is no mean achievement. (Note: Presumably science and tech innovation could not have prevented the yet unclear result of Malaysia Air’s recent tragedy.) Similarly, the Engineering and Technical institutions involved in the work with Toyota will no doubt achieve great results in moving the needle on automobile safety. Even with this progress, at some level, all drivers appreciate the myriad of risks involved in heading out on any road in any vehicle.
For Toyota’s part in this, the bigger question is: “how was driver safely allowed to slip on the priority scale in so many aspects of the business?” The CSRC will no doubt get more attention in the aftermath of the recent US legal decision. Potentially these events will result in the world being a safer and better place with increased attention on vehicle safety. This will be consolation only to the most philosophical of those directly affected by the shortcomings. Practices at Toyota may indeed change so that “safety” plays a clearer role. If so, the claims in its vision statement won’t ring as hollow as they do today.