Reputations are a funny thing. You can build one up through years of toiling, to a point that you think it’s bomb-proof, and wake up one day and find that it has all come unstuck faster than you can say, well, ‘reputation’.

Usually, it just takes a single instance to deliver the damage, but for something along the lines and size of an automotive company, that sort of thing needs far more weight, as well as recurrence. The point is, if it happens long and fast enough, the implications aren’t going to be pretty, and the first thing to go out the window is that erstwhile solid reputation.

The last 18 months has seen just that, in the case of Toyota. Once known as the automotive equivalent of the Borg (the “have you ever seen a Corolla break down?” tagline shouted that empirical belief best), the squeaky clean rep it has had isn’t as impossibly impenetrable as it was, for sure. Growing too big too fast, as it was succinctly put, has brought about some rather testy gremlins for the ride.

Read more after the jump.

Having what seems an endless number of recalls, from fixing ‘stuck’ gas pedals trapped in the floor mat to potential fuel leaks, has been the very big issue, one that started in August 2009 when four people died in a high-speed crash involving a Lexus in the US.

Since then, the company has recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide to address all the various issues and problems that have come about. Happily, US regulators did clear the company last month of blame on the electronic flaw front.

Electronics, it was said, were not responsible for the sudden, unintended acceleration issue and that the problems that came about were due to mechanical defects (dealt with in recalls) and “pedal misapplication,” where instead of applying the brakes, the accelerator was stepped on.

Yes, it remains the world’s largest automaker (by a shade), and there’s no doubting its technical ability and technological accomplishment, which runs with the best in this regard. It will remain a leader, working its magic by building a wide net of overlapping models that ultimately snares buyers on the basis that if one model doesn’t work, another will eventually appeal. Always worked, and always will.

What has changed is how the company is perceived, in some quarters at least, and more importantly how the company perceives its customers. The idea that everyone takes everyone else for granted for dependability is very much a thing of the past. So it is hoped.

With a record US$48.8 million paid in fines for three recalls, the company has learnt much in the process and, as it tries to put its reputation right again, has vowed to heed customer complaints quickly and efficiently, as well as upgrade the safety technology in its vehicles. Among these are a brake override system that automatically cuts the throttle when both brake and gas pedals are simultaneously applied.

Granted, it isn’t the only Japanese company to be afflicted by recalls, which really isn’t as bad a word as it’s made out to be. The problem is that the entire current episode happened to start with it, and in volume and scope, no other company has been that harder hit.

Of course, much of what transpired happened in the United States, a place where you really don’t want to be cocking up, well, not on a consistent basis to the tune of countless recalls. Europe sang the tune too, but to a significantly lesser degree. And Asia, well, remained quiet, with the exception of Japan, and so remained unscathed in the wake.

The idea that the consciousness is a frail thing must have occurred to the company, which went about pre-empting anything of such a nature from spilling over to these parts through a familiarisation trip to Japan to showcase the workings of the company.

Organised by Toyota Motor Asia Pacific late last year, the visit took a bunch of Malaysian journalists over a wide variety of presentations in Toyota City as well as the technical centre in Higashi Fuji, and while everything was largely presented via a technological point of view, one couldn’t help but feel that beneath the veneer of the studio presentations lay the real message of why the trip came about, which was to impart that Toyota had learnt the lesson well and was going about correcting approaches in its building process.

Something in a large organisation’s psyche, however, dictates that speaking openly about it isn’t done – the subject of what had changed in the process from before wasn’t delved in great detail, despite plenty of questions, though it was revealed that the Early Detection, Early Resolution (EDER) phase had been strengthened within the basic job process loop, and more checkpoints were in place.

Where in the past, every complaint was reliant only on field reports (which took time to filter in), now complaints via the phone from a customer as well as from websites have been added into the mix, hastening the process. A complaint is now quickly followed by an analysis and investigation of the customer’s vehicle on-site, and if there’s a problem, the details are moved along at a far quicker pace; Toyota says that resolution is 30% quicker than the year before.

Also, an additional four weeks has been added to the timeframe before a model is launched. This ensures that more time is spent on R&D and specific quality checks, with additional manpower of 1,000 people being devoted to this task, adding on to the man-hours worked on a vehicle, making for 1.7 million in all.

Away from that, there was plenty of opportunity to showcase the technology and engineering over a number of presentations, starting with a visit to the flooded road test facility, where vehicles wade at selected speeds through water-filled troughs (up to a metre deep) to ensure their ability to handle more than a mere rain squall without choking.

When asked if any cars had actually failed and stalled attempting the test, the station’s engineering head said that there was once where a sedan from a certain German marque didn’t make it through – I’ll leave it to you to guess which brand.

The next round of presentations involved suspension and related component durability testing, as well as electro-magnetic compatibility. Toyota has eight vehicle EMC chambers in Toyota City, the first of which was built in April 1979, and the last two in April 2009.

The chambers vary in size, and each measures a different scope of testing through an assortment of frequency ranges, from 20MHz to 100GHz. Tests range from high and low frequency emission, electrical and radiation immunity, on-board antenna as well as nearby external antenna to smart key range evaluation. It’s all bound to give you a buzz.

The two highlights of the programme, however, were within the confines of the technical centre in Higashi Fuji. The first was a crash test involving a Crown Majesta against a Yaris at the centre’s impressive crash test facility, prepared for us visiting journos.

One offset front smash-up later, you’d think it would be the end of the Yaris, but while the front had pretty much been hammered in, it didn’t mess with the little car’s cabin integrity; the doors could be opened without fuss, surely good news after any crash. The Crown was obviously in much better shape, given its size and mass.

Speaking of crashes, the main occupants in these were also highlighted, and provided for a fascinating study. The ubiquitous crash test dummy in Toyota speak is designated as a THUMS, or Total Human Model for Safety. Jointly developed by Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Central Research and Development Laboratories in 1997, Version 1 of the AM50 occupant and pedestrian came about in 2000.

The original incorporated major bones and ligaments, with 80,000 elements in all. By Version 3 the element count was 130,000, and the brain was also in. Version 4, which came about last year, contains 2,000,000 elements, and features remeshed bones and ligaments, brain as well as internal organ simulators. As for model variations, the AM50 male has since been joined by the AF05 female and two age-specific children models, a six-year-old as well as a nine-year-old. There’s also a pregnant dummy, so it’s quite the happy family.

With an assortment of other regular crash test dummies, the THUMS get to enjoy going through a whole lot of rather murderous tasks. From frontal/lateral impact to thorax, side impact, bone fracture, ligament rupture to whiplash tests, they take such abuse to see what happens to the human body in crashes. From outside the car, they simulate pedestrian impact accidents. All this, and they come back for more.

Here’s some interesting trivia regarding crash test dummies, something that I observed at the centre. They don’t have to wear clothes, but rather strangely, they do need to wear shoes. In this case, men’s working shoes. Apparently, it’s a requirement as part of NCAP testing. Quite bizarre, don’t you think?

On to the second highlight of the trip, and this was to drive a car in the world’s largest and most advanced video game machine. Which is what the centre’s driving simulator is.

The driver sits in an actual car placed inside the dome, which measures 7.1m diameter, and performs driving operations while video images are projected onto a 360-degree spherical screen taking up the entire interior of the doom. The images come courtesy of eight Barco Sim6Ultra liquid crystal projectors, at UXGA (1600×1200) resolution.

The dome is moved, under precise computer control, by one of the world’s largest simulation apparatuses, 35m high and 20m wide, made up of a turntable, tilt system, vibration actuator and other devices capable of realistically simulating turns and any number of other driving manoeuvres.

In addition, the driving simulator provides a faithful simulation of the actual sensation of driving, including velocity and acceleration. Furthermore, realistic sounds are added to give the driver an experience of driving that comes as close to reality as possible.

In theory, it sounds wonderful enough, but in use, the application takes some getting used to. Orientation is the main issue. The movement transitions are there, just that you’re sitting there being fed cues you don’t get in driving under real-world conditions (like air, for one. There’s no windscreen, presumably to improve visual acuity and airflow within the static bodyshell. So yes, there’s no ‘driving under rainy condition’ testing).

It’s not the claustrophobia that gets you, however, but rather the slight lag in cue synchronisation, visual and movement-wise. You step on the pedal, the simulator responds with motion, but the visuals engage with a fair bit of delay. The result is that your eyes and brain don’t quite match it all together, and by the end of the session in the driver’s seat, you do end up feeling a bit funny.

While the sim allows a vehicle to touch 300kph, because the mechanicals haven’t the outright speed, simulating a high speed twist and jink session with, say, a FT86-II is simply out of the question.

Aside from the syncronisation anomaly, which can presumably be gotten around once you’ve piled on the miles, the simulator does a grand job of aiding development – ‘driving’ it shows how accurate measurements can be taken in terms of driver behaviours and response to objects, both moving and static, as well as alertness levels.

At the end of it all, the entire trip did serve to show how adept Toyota is, technically and technologically. But that was never the contention in the first place – a company doesn’t get to where it is like Toyota has by being anything less than being suitably accomplished, and it certainly is first-rate, as you’d expect.

Somehow, along the way, in that effort to grow at such a ferocious speed and rate, things went amiss, something that the company is now acutely aware of, having paid a hefty price in monetary as well as psychological terms. While the visit to Japan showed that measures have been taken to get things back on the rail correctly, the road to absolute recovery for a reputation that for so long has been bomb-proof will take some time to accomplish. Not that it plays any significant part here in Malaysia, though.