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driving it home

Japan's auto giant Toyota Motor president Akio Toyoda (centre) is surrounded by reporters after meeting with Japanese Transport Minister Seiji Maehara at Maehara's office in Tokyo on February 9, 2010. Toyota announced to recall the company's hybrid vehicle Prius for the brake trouble.YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP / Getty Images

Yesterday, Toyota again started building and selling the eight models cited in the January 21 recall (accelerator pedal problems), even as a big Prius hybrid recall was in the offing.

All the while, Toyota keeps saying, "Our goal is to continue to earn that trust (of customers) each and every day."

Sorry. Boilerplate and motherhood statements are not enough.

When unintended acceleration problems spiral into the recall of over eight million vehicles worldwide, it's time to get out in front of the quality and safety issues that are clearly damaging Toyota's reputation.

Why is it that Toyota has had no serious response for U.S. safety authorities and members of the Obama administration who have hammered Toyota for its slow response to problems related to unintended acceleration?

Why is it that Toyota president Akio Toyoda took until last Friday to apologize for a series of recalls that date to last November? Why did it take Toyota so long to take the unusual step of bringing in outside experts to review quality controls?

Why did Toyota quietly scrap high-level "Customer First" quality meetings implemented in 2005 during the last flurry of recalls?

Automotive News reports that top executives felt they weren't needed. Weren't needed? The quality meetings were apparently phased out in the months after Akio Toyoda was named the company's next president in January 2009.

Why is it that Toyota has been so publicly passive? Toyota investors can't be happy. They've seen their shares lose more than a fifth of their value since this crisis began.

Here's another question: Can Toyota really and truly earn the annual profit forecast last week before Toyoda's Friday news conference? Even as the cost of fixing millions of faulty cars is set to exceed $1-billion (U.S.)? Even as Toyota looks at legal costs?

At least 30 class-action lawsuits have been filed against the Japanese auto maker in the United States and Canada. Hungry lawyers, sensing a wounded Toyota, are calling out to consumers in an effort to capitalize on Toyota's vehicle defects.

Take the case of the law firm Steigerwalt & Associates. It has a website up and running that asks: "Have You or Loved One Been Injured or Killed in an Accident Due to A Defective Gas Pedal or Floor Mat? You may be entitled to substantial compensation!" Yes, the lawyers are out trolling for clients, and in force.

Transport Canada has been largely mute in all this, but not U.S. Government officials. So far, Toyota has avoided being subject to a full investigation into unintended acceleration of its vehicles. But now it seems only a matter of time. There is, after all, a U.S. congressional probe over safety issues planned for this week.

Oh, and this last bit of bad news. This morning Automotive News reports that Toyota Motor faces yet another possible U.S. federal investigation, this time of the electric power steering in 2009 and 2010 Corollas.

Automotive News found that the Corolla has been the subject of 83 power-steering complaints since April 2008, 76 of which have reported that the vehicle unexpectedly veers to the left or right at 40 miles an hour and up.

Toyota, notes the publication, switched from hydraulic to electric power steering with its 2009 Corolla, which first went on sale in February 2008.

This story is starting to spin out of control. Akio Toyoda seems to understand that.

"This is a moment of crisis for Toyota," he said after apologizing to customers worldwide last week.

Yet is seems that even though "customer first" is one of Toyoda's favourite catch phrases, concrete examples of what that actually means seem in short supply. For instance, last week Toyoda himself repeatedly stressed that his company needs to get back to basics and put customers first. Unfortunately, Toyoda didn't give a timetable for implementing Toyota's renewed quality campaign.

So it's all well and good to say the company is pushing hard to verify the cause of the recalls.

It's all well and good to say the company will inspect every process, from design and production to sales and service.

And who can argue that it's not a good idea to beef up customer research offices to collect more comprehensive feedback from the field - and to establish regional Automotive Centers of Quality Excellence.

But the public and government officials, not to mention hungry lawyers and rabid reporters need more. They are all clamouring for proof and for measurable timelines.

Toyota needs to get ahead of this story much faster than we've seen to date - and in very public ways.

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