Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Toyota's woes could be yours tomorrow

Sacramento, California – The auto industry has never lacked for amnesia, but here’s something that automakers chuckling at Toyota’s gas pedal problems would do well to remember …

What goes around comes around.

Consider just a few years ago when General Motors was considered America’s lifelong heavy hitter, yet could not withstand the advances of Toyota to become the world’s No. 1 automaker. And Ford Motor Co. was considered the American car company that couldn’t do anything right, unless losing money was something to be proud of.

Chrysler? Well, at least it was hooked up with the German Daimler giant, who was longing to get rid of all things Mopar.

Now, Toyota is in the soup. General Motors is seen as a Capitol Hill beggar in the public’s eyes. Chrysler is part of Detroit’s Big Three only in the minds of those who can remember back a decade. And Ford appears to have acquired the Midas touch.

But here’s the rub: GM and others are kicking Toyota when it’s down, jumping in with incentives for Toyota customers sufficiently disgruntled with the Japanese automaker’s sticking accelerators on some models. I get it: This is a cutthroat business, and it’s not unusual for one automaker to benefit from the misfortune of another. That’s as old as the first steering wheel.

That diamond-hard business approach might be smooth enough to swallow were it not for Toyota’s reaction when General Motors was on the verge of a fiscal meltdown. Then, Toyota graciously stepped up and said it was absolutely opposed to the very idea of its big American rival going belly-up. Toyota rightly said that it would be bad for the auto industry and motorists worldwide if GM went under. Toyota even hinted at helping its stumbling rival return to solid footing.

Classy? Yes. Genuine or just smoke? I don’t know. What I do know is that it was good PR on Toyota’s end, and it soothed the troubled souls of thousands of GM employees.

And here’s the thing: What is happening to Toyota today could be happening to GM tomorrow. Or Ford. Or Chrysler. Or Subaru for crying out loud.

Anyone involved in the manufacture of complex transportation machines knows that you’re one small mistake away from plunging a giant automaker into the pit of hideous negative news. Does anyone need to remind Ford of past misadventures with its Pinto or Explorer? As for GM, does the name Ralph Nader ring a bell?

Allegations of motor vehicle dangers don’t even have to be accurate to create havoc for an automaker. Just a whiff of trouble can cost you market share.

Those slapping their knees about Toyota’s current plight might want to keep that in mind. It could be your head on the chopping block tomorrow. That’s the nature of the auto biz.

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