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By Nathan Scripps

Toyota is in the midst of the most widely discussed automaker recall in recent memory, and this seemingly Greek tragedy is still unfolding. The Toyota recalls of the past six months, two related to acceleration (floormat entrapment and sticky pedals) and one to braking on the 2010 Prius, have been the most publicly known and popularly debated automaker recalls since perhaps 2000, when Firestone tires were linked to more than 100 deaths.

The dialog between Toyota and the public has continuously shifted as more and more information comes to light and newer technologies are necessary to keep the conversation going. I look back on the past six months and see it as an evolving play of sorts, and this trio of recalls is a climactic moment that could very well define the next decade of Toyota worldwide.

Toyota and GMPrologue: Rise of a new king
Toyota set up U.S. operations in California in 1957, as Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., and steadily grew market share and profits, even garnering a few business books about their production system, the Toyota Way, as they surpassed the longstanding king, General Motors. Toyota, the new champion of America, built its empire on quality and reliability.

Act one: Signs of trouble
Shortly after Toyota recalled nearly four million vehicles in September 2009, the largest recall in its history, due to potential floormat interference with the accelerator pedal, the Los Angeles Times began a series of stories that looked at safety concerns at the company. The first of these, which was published in October 2009, covered reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. A flurry of blog posts, tweets and re-tweets, Facebook messages and emails quickly spread the news.

In a subsequent article, in December 2009, the L.A. Times reported that an investigation by the paper "shows the world's largest automaker has delayed recalls and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects."

The same day that L.A. Times article appeared, Toyota published a statement on its U.S. media site. Titled Setting the Record Straight, it read in part, "Today the Los Angeles Times published an article that wrongly and unfairly attacks Toyota’s integrity and reputation.”

Toyota acted as any new king would, as if its authority couldn’t and shouldn’t be questioned. The company's simple, direct rebuke of the article posted on their site suggests a stark and limited dialog about the possible quality issue.

Social media bandwagon by Matt HammAct two: Public outcry
However, the hyper-connected nature of consumers created a storm of conversation around these recalls that continues to build even now, several months later.

While recalls are not uncommon among automakers, why has this instance been raised to such tragic frenzy among the public and the press? It is debated within the industry as well as among concerned owners. It could be a patriotic sentiment: excitement to see a c**** in the import brand’s armor. It could be a heartfelt outcry for the lives lost due to avoidable mechanical error. It could be an escape valve for pent-up frustration stemming from the recession. It is likely all of these and more.

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