The 1970s saw many advances made by Japanese automakers: continued modernization of the production process, new safety standards, development of the strictest emissions standards in the world and engineering geared toward better fuel economy.
American automakers adopted these measures once the value (and positive perception in the marketplace) was proven. But American automakers are no slouches themselves: Though they struggled through periods in the 1970s and 1980s, they were still selling cars all over the world. Chrysler changed family transportation forever with the unleashing of the first mass-market minivan, the Dodge Caravan, and in the 1980s, Ford began using its truck bodies for SUV production. Successes like these didn't serve to increase any desire to learn from the Japanese.
While profiting for the better part of 20 years on large trucks and SUVs, American car companies didn't expect or plan for the steep drop in consumer interest in these gas guzzlers as volatile gas prices topped $4 a gallon.
Toyota was the first to plunge into the world of mass-produced hybrid and electric vehicles, and because of that, they enjoy a continued technological advantage over the rest of the world in producing these types of autos. But success for some Japanese automakers doesn't mean success for all -- Nissan and Mazda didn't share in the success in the 1990s and struggled to adopt Toyota's processes along with their American counterparts.
While the Big Three have focused on creating innovative products, the Japanese automakers have been streamlining the processes responsible for those products, and remain the worldwide leader in the implementation of "just in time" production systems.
By the 1990s, GM, Ford and Chrysler each took Toyota's products, progress and processes seriously and began implementing their production methods. However, a gulf remains: While American companies adopted the system, they didn't necessarily adopt the philosophy. Toyota had been utilizing, developing and improving upon its system since the 1940s, and it continues to refine and improve its own system. That's part of the system. It's not a top-down directive, but a company-wide philosophy to constantly improve processes, policies and personal performance. American automakers still tend to push themselves with a "bigger is better" philosophy, while Toyota has actually adjusted its goals to stop chasing market share and concentrate on building affordable cars that consumers want to buy.
Read on for lots more information about Japanese car building techniques.