What Toyota Should Do

Including my parents, we own four Toyotas in my family; over time, we’ve probably owned eight or 10. Will we ever buy another? Depends. Depends on whether we can trust the company given its performance lately.

There’s a reason we bought our Toyotas. They are incredibly reliable. I abuse mine, skipping service calls. But – knock wood – I’ve not had any major problems. So even though I don’t much like Toyota design and – as a professor, can no longer afford to pay for that styling with the Lexus brand – I thought I was pretty much stuck buying them forever. Why fix what’s not broken, eh?

But now we find out our Toyotas are broken. We find out that Toyota has known this for too long and done nothing. We call our dealer and get stonewalled about the problem with brakes in the Prius our son drives. Dealers in California drop ABC because it dared to report on the problems.

Didn’t these people read Cluetrain? (Should I send them a copy of What Would Google Do?)

Their behavior is all the more unforgivable because there are so many new tools to use to learn about and fix problems and keep customers informed – and because there have been so many lessons from other companies (start with Dell).

If Toyota were the trustworthy company, brand, and product I thought it was – if it is to regain my trust – I suggest:

The company should gather and publish openly a complete record of all repairs and reported problems for all its models. I hope to hell they’re doing this internally as a way to see when problems emerge. But if they don’t, we should. I’d love it if we had a carwiki where we could all do this with cars (and other products) to show trends and alert companies and – if they don’t respond – warn customers. Think of it as a SeeClickFix for our stuff.

When Hyundai entered the U.S. and had plenty of reliability problems, it extended its warranty to 10 years and that, today, is a selling point. In the age of open and social data, Toyota could regain its perch as a reliable brand by becoming the open brand, by making reliability a collaborative effort.

I think the company should also reengineer its cars for regular updates, like phones. Mind you, in my book – and when I discuss my likely next book, Beta – I am always quick to caution that I don’t want to drive the beta car or fly in the beta jet. When safety is an issue, perfection has to be the goal.

But we know that there can always be improvements. Nothing’s perfect. My Nexus One worked but after getting its update – automatically – on Friday, it works better and does more. In many of their systems, cars could operate similarly.

The problem with the Prius brakes is in its software. An update will allegedly fix it. Priuses sold last month had the update. Why the hell wasn’t the update pushed out to every Prius? Why did we have to argue with our dealer about this? Because it’s treated as a problem, a recall, a liability in both legal and PR terms. But if the culture of cars were like those of computers and phones – if they could get updates automatically – then it would be less of a big deal: Problem found, problem solved, asap. Improvement suggested, improvement implemented, anytime.

I wish we could drive our cars up to our home wi-fi or the nearest Starbucks (or dealer … or even my mobile phone) and connect to get updates and improvements. If that were possible – if that’s how many problems were solved – then cars would be engineered differently, operating as much as possible under drive-by-wire and nodes of a network.

When we talked about this yesterday, my colleague Peter Hauck blanched at the idea that cars could be hacked. Yes, I can see new plotlines for TV detective shows or even 24: at the stroke of midnight, the hacker’s worm has every car in America turn right, stop, and go into reverse (not-so-subtle metaphor there).

Yet by opening up, car companies can not only discover problems but fix them – and improve their cars. Look at what is happening at Local Motors as members of the community collaborate to design cars and even make economic decisions about them. Now just as I always give my caveat about the beta car, I also always have to issue my caveat about the democratic car: I don’t want design by vote – I don’t want the Homer Simpsonmobile – but I do think the smart car company would be open to the smarts of its drivers. I’ll bet that the community of Toyota drivers could find problems faster than the company and suggest fixes and suggest improvements.

So, Toyota, you can issue overdue recalls and then apologize until you’re blue in the face but that won’t regain my trust. You have to do something bold and become the first car company that enables its community of drivers. If you don’t do it, I’ll bet Ford will.

First published here on Buzzmachine.com

Jeff Jarvis blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. The author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), Jarvis is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at ...read more

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