Stephen Foley: How the hysteria over Toyota's tribulations spiralled out of control


US Outlook: Call it "The $5bn Injustice". For the best part of two years, Toyota has been fighting a tide of innuendo about the safety of its cars.

It has had to contend with crackpots and fraudsters on the evening news, the political theatrics of Congressional hearings and selective quotations from subpoenaed documents, plus an internet mob in full cry.

And this week, the best scientists in the world confirmed what the Japanese car maker has been saying over and over: there is nothing wrong with the electronics of its vehicles. Those terrifying cases of "unintended acceleration", where cars were said to have raced out of control, for the most part had a very prosaic cause: drivers were holding down the accelerator.

The story of how a few genuine cases, caused mainly by ill-fitting floor mats that slipped over the accelerator pedal, which were fixed by Toyota in a series of recalls beginning in 2008, turned into a circus of ever-more exaggerated claims should terrify every executive of a major company. The unreasonableness and extremism that we often decry in US political debate is just as prevalent when it comes to business.

The reasons are hardly a secret. There are more rolling-news minutes than there are experts to fill them. The imperative to "move the story on" entails speculating about worst-case scenarios. Two-bit science is elevated and indistinguishable from more informed discussion. There is no mileage for a blogger in accepting the scientific consensus. No clicks on a headline that says, "Don't panic". Website comment sections fill up with cynicism and anti-corporate invective.

It is part of a wider, more philosophical problem. We are conditioned to believe that cleverness lies in seeing through the statements of a corporation or a government, to a truth they are trying to obscure; our whole mode of thought means we don't listen to what anyone says any more, we go straight on to asking why they might be saying it. To simply accept something at face value? How dumb!

The impact on Toyota's market share has been profound. Its sales in the US fell 0.4 per cent last year, while the industry as a whole rose 11 per cent. Earlier this month, a consulting firm called Interbrand calculated that the value of the Toyota brand had slumped 16 per cent, almost $5bn, in the past year.

The US government of course did find flaws with Toyota's procedures for the timely reporting of safety issues to regulators but, absent the level of hysteria, it is unlikely these would have led to the $48.8m in fines that Toyota eventually agreed to pay.

I have been struck by the parallels with the reaction to the BP oil spill last year. Without in any way dismissing the massive economic and environmental cost of the spill, the amount of two-bit science being peddled during the outcry was very depressing. Remember those two chaps demonstrating how you could soak up oil in their kitchen saucepans, using just a bale of hay? Remember the hunt for those imagined plumes of oil, before it turned out the spill was dispersing naturally? In the end, one of the most profound scientific statements during that crisis was Tony Hayward's, when he said: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean."

Even this week, the report of Nasa scientists wasn't good enough for some of Toyota's critics. Steve Berman, attorney for some of the purported victims of "unintended acceleration" and presumably not himself a rocket scientist, immediately began critiquing the methodology of the study and signalled his legal fight will go on.

In the cacophony of modern communication, from mainstream media to the raised voices of everyone on the internet, we must strain to hear the real experts – but it is getting harder. For executives, this is a terrifying new reality. The modern crowd, like markets, can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
News
peopleWarning - contains a lot of swearing
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Guru Careers: In-House / Internal Recruiter

£25 - 28k + Bonus: Guru Careers: An In-house / Internal Recruiter is needed to...

Recruitment Genius: Tax Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Tax Assistant is required to join a leading ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project