It was the Monday morning after Thanksgiving when Dick Chitty, Lexus vice president of service and customer relations, came into my office. I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. There was an awkward silence. I sensed this was not going to be good news.
The previous week, a salesperson from Tustin Lexus in southern California was taking a customer on a test drive of the LS400 on the San Diego Freeway when the cruise control failed to disengage. The quick-thinking salesperson reached over and manually disengaged the cruise control. The dealership sent a tow truck to bring the car back to the service department. They were able to repeat the failure in the service department and immediately filed a technical report to the national office.
I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. We both knew the catastrophic impact a safety component failure could have on the Lexus brand image. After all, it had only been three years since the Audi brand was almost destroyed by an unintended acceleration issue.
In 1984, Audi sold 74,000 cars. Audi had staked its technical reputation on the “art of engineering.” In 1985, the Audi 5000-S was introduced to broad acclaim, but only a year later public opinion had turned against the car.
The TV news magazine 60 Minutes ran a story about the Audi 5000-S, interviewing owners who blamed their crashes on unintended acceleration. A Canton, Ohio mother vividly described how her Audi 5000 crushed her six-year-old son when it accelerated out of control, even though her foot was on the brake.
The 60 Minutes program showed an Audi blasting off out of control. The visual was dramatic and made great TV. However, the network failed to tell the audience that the producers of the show had altered the transmission, causing it to accelerate out of control.
The negative press was overwhelming, and a flood of lawsuits followed. Hundreds of drivers came forward claiming their cars surged out of control after they shifted from “park” to “drive” or “reverse.” Audi claimed the car was not defective, did nothing, and remained silent. Its Chairman, Ferdinand Peich, told Ward’s Automotive News, “Of course we must teach Americans how to drive.”
The Audi arrogance cost them dearly. By 1988 Audi’s sales had plummeted to 30,000 and the top three North American managers had lost their jobs. Mario de Francisco of Rochester, NY Audi said, “There’s a good chance some of the Audi franchises could fail.” Audi sales further collapsed to 18,000 in 1991. It took more than a decade for Audi to recover.
It wasn’t until three years later that the NHTSA would issue a report citing driver error, because the pedal placement of the brake caused drivers to mistakenly press the gas pedal when they thought they were pressing the brake pedal. After the Audi issue, manufacturers installed a device preventing a driver from shifting the car from “park” to “drive” or “reverse” without having a foot firmly on the brake.
I was badly shaken by the news that Lexus might be facing a similar situation. There was never any question about what to do. Federal law allows a manufacturer five working days to identify a problem, find a fix, and report it to the NHTSA. I couldn’t imagine the grief Chief Engineer Suzuki and his team of engineers would be going through to get this problem fixed and the embarrassment of Chairman Toyoda. There would be many sleepless nights.
My primary concern was for the safety of our Lexus owners and their families. A weariness and rising nausea overcame me. Pictures of Lexus LS400s running out of control kept creeping into my mind. On the way home that night I stopped at my home church, Irvine Presbyterian, but the doors were locked. I drove down the street to Saint John Neumann Catholic Church, sunk down into the back pew, and closed my eyes. I felt helpless. An elderly priest came over and asked if he could be of assistance. I thanked him and said I just needed some quiet time.
I asked God to watch over the Lexus owners and their families, that no one would be injured or lose their lives while we were trying to resolve the cruise control problem. I asked that His Spirit would guide our engineers so they could find a fix quickly. Finally, I asked for guidance in how Lexus should respond to this crisis with our customers and dealers.
“God’s there, listening for all who pray, for all who pray and mean it. He does what’s best for those who fear him—hears them call out, and saves them.” Psalm 145:18-19 (MSG)
Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was asked by a reporter how he always knew the right thing to do. Truman responded, “Everybody knows the right thing to do. Doing it is the hard part.”
(To be continued in “The Hard Part”)