This week brought some possible good news for Toyota. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Transportation Department has studied data from a number of Toyota’s involved in crashes that supposedly were caused by sudden acceleration and found that “throttles were wide open and the brakes weren’t engaged at the time of the crash” (Early Tests Pin Toyota Accidents on Drivers, Jul 14). That suggests that these crash were due to human error and not faulty product. The appropriate question then is not “what did Toyota screw up?” but “should dad still be driving?”.
Driver error has been the industry’s default answer to all sudden acceleration complaints for over two decades. The data that the Transportation Department is looking at comes from “black box” recorders in Toyotas that record the state of the vehicle at the time of the crash. As a lawyer who is suing Toyota in cases related to sudden acceleration points out that Toyota has consistently claimed that these black boxes are not reliable and just prototypes so the Feds’ findings are likely not the end of the story here.
Which brings us to another piece of news. Toyota has announced that it is stretching out and tweaking its development process (Toyota Is Changing How It Develops Cars, Jul 5, WSJ). The time component here is the easiest to focus on but I am not sure it is where the meaningful changes are. The Journal reports that they are going to take a whole four — count ’em 4! — weeks on the revised Avalon. I think what is more important is that Toyota is going to do more of the design work themselves.
The company is also working to bring development work that had been sourced to outside engineers back inside. Some outside engineers actually work side by side with Toyota’s engineers inside Toyota research and development centers. But using contractors has led to a breakdown in communication and potential misunderstandings, Mr. Stephens said.
A senior Toyota engineer said the company uses outside engineers to do about 30% of its development work globally and seeks to reduce the ratio to 10%. Toyota spokeswoman Cynthia Mahalak, of the Toyota Technical Center, said she couldn’t confirm the ratios.
Here is what Executive VP Takeshi Uchiyamada said about these changes (Toyota Will Prolong Development Cycle to Improve Quality, Jul 7, Automotive News):
Uchiyamada assigned partial blame for Toyota’s quality shortcomings on a lack of clear communication among the company, contract engineers, and external suppliers.
“It is not just ‘supply to spec’ and let the suppliers produce the part,” said Uchiyamada. “When we outsource, we would like to check the thinking of the suppliers’ design, how they manufacture and how they do evaluation.”
Toyota is also redeploying engineers and giving some the explicit mission of questioning how well the vehicles will work from the customer’s perspective:
Uchiyamada, who runs research and development for Toyota, reported that Toyota has assigned 1,000 of its engineers to address quality issues, a 50-percent increase.
In that 1,000, a newly established team of 100 “Devil’s advocate” engineers will audit the quality of vehicles independently from the consumer’s perspective, Uchiyamada reported.
“It’s important for our engineers to look at a vehicle and see how customers might use it in ways that haven’t been reflected in our testing,” he noted, adding that doing so might help pinpoint issues like the problem of stacked or loose floor mats before they arrive on the market. “We want them to be a little mean,” he commented.
It’s a little amusing that the once infallible Toyota has nicked a job title from the Catholic Church as it tries to rebuild its reputation. But this may be a good way forward for them. Indeed, I would think that of these three changes, having independent engineers audit the designs is potentially the most fruitful change. Time on the order of a few weeks is not going to be game changing when development cycles are a few years. Doing more work in house is not as important as making sure there is meaningful communication. Toyota has long been known for being reliant on a trusted network of suppliers to design and build parts. I can’t imagine that they are just going to walk away from that model — especially if they haven’t put the rest of their design process in order yet.
Fresh eyes make a difference, though, and if these Devil’s advocates are truly independent and command respect, they can force changes. To some extent that they haven’t done this to date points to the role of growth in causing Toyota’s problems. This requires extra bodies and it is hard to come up those resources when the whole organization is geared toward growth. Now that Toyota is a retrenching a little, they can devote people to this task.