NHTSA Seeks Input on Electronics Rule

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published a Federal Register Notice seeking comments on the possibility of writing regulations to ensure the safety of automotive electronics. The 10-page request for comments, satisfying a directive from the federal legislation known as MAP–21 to “complete an examination of the need for safety standards with regard to electronic systems in passenger motor vehicles,” would have been an excellent addition to Volume 54 of the Federal Register (published in 1989).

We Read the Report. Did Ray?

Last week, NHTSA pitched its two technical tomes on Toyota unintended acceleration at a pack of reporters, declared that the automaker’s electronics were fine, and ran away. Our esteemed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood then made the media rounds, grousing that the critics hadn’t read the report, which leads us to ask: Did Ray?

We’ve been reading it and re-reading it, and conferring with a wide range of technical experts – some of whom have extensive experience in engine management control design, validation and testing. And we gotta tell you, Ray, we aren’t ready to buy our kid a new Toyota.

Far from exonerating Toyota electronics, the reports by NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) confirm the paucity of the automaker’s safety diagnostics. The NESC team also identifies how the two signals in the accelerator pedal position sensor can be shorted in the real world – leading to an open throttle (aka, tin whiskers). Hell, NESC found the potential in three pedals – that’s a pretty significant percentage in a very small sample. Tin whiskers are such a serious issue that NASA has devoted considerable resources to studying them. They have wreaked electronic havoc on everything from medical devices to weapons systems and satellites. Yet, the NESC report treated the discovery of tin whiskers in a third of their pedal sample like a dead end, instead of a promising avenue of study.

The Corrections

Apparently, when Toyota isn’t conducting secret polls to destroy our reputation, it’s reading our blogs. (We blush.) Yesterday, we got an e-mail from Mr. Mike Michels himself! Michels, Toyota’s Vice President of Communications, asked us to correct a paragraph in our post entitled “Toyota’s Quiet Buybacks Speak Up.”

We quoted an allegation from the Multi-District Litigation, which purported to show that Mike Robinson, Toyota’s Technical Supervisor of the Quality Assurance Powertrain Group, Toyota/Lexus Product Quality & Service Support, was an Avalon owner who had experienced an SUA incident. This is what we reported:

SRS Releases Update Report: Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Eight months have passed since Congress called out NHTSA and Toyota for failing to address Sudden Unintended Acceleration. The agency and the automaker claim they've learned nothing new about the problem, but there's nothing wrong with our learning curve. Behind the barrage of PR are all those niggling little facts, and once again, SRS has assembled them into the go-to Toyota SUA reference guide.

Toyota Dealers to Customers: It’s Not Me, It’s You

Toyota has never had any good choices in extricating itself from the Sudden Unintended Acceleration problem it has been in for a year and counting. (Except admit the problem, work diligently to resolve it, take your lumps and move on.) But as many a public relations expert has opined already, they have won themselves a place in the pantheon of business school case studies in the “What-not-to-Do” category.

The streak continues. We’ve noticed a dribbling of press releases from Toyota dealerships touting the NHTSA interpretation of the Toyota black box data as proof that there is nothing wrong with their products. These headlines and sub-heads left us gob-smacked:

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

Every Time We Learn Something Else, It Gets Worse (for Toyota)

Some day, possibly very soon, the Harvard Business School is going to do a case study on Toyota and sudden unintended acceleration, and two of the underlying principles are going to be: Don’t lie so (bleeping) much; and Swat not the gadfly with a sledgehammer.

We know that Toyota has compounded its technical problem with a public relations disaster, but we’re always fascinated to learn that it’s worse than we thought – to wit Toyota v. David Gilbert.

Manufacturing Doubt in Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels is on our nightstands right now, and we cannot shake the feeling of déjà vu. Michaels, recently confirmed as the new head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Assistant Secretary of Labor, writes about the attack, deny and delay tactics developed by Big Tobacco in the 1950s that have been adopted and refined to a fare-thee-well by countless other industries. Michaels is an epidemiologist, so his dizzying catalogue of bad actors focuses on chemical health hazards – tobacco, chromium, lead, beryllium, and the like.

But what caught our attention was his exploration of how manufacturers use science – or the appearance thereof - to raise enough doubt to clog the regulatory machinery and to persuade juries and the public that their products cause no harm by countering scientific studies indicating a hazard with their own bought-and-paid-for-research showing the opposite.

Anatomy of a Smear

What do you do when bad news about you product gets out? If your highly prized brand is synonymous with reliability, job one is to kill the bearers of the bad tidings. While Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration stories regularly set up shop on the front pages of all national dallies these days, Safety Research and Strategies had been following this story closely for months before it broke through into the mainstream press.

After the Saylor family died in an SUA crash on a California highway in August, and Congress was poised to drag Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before its investigatory committees, SRS decided that a factual accounting of the history of this issue was necessary. We threw the resources of our small company into this project and wrote a lengthy report that gathered the public record into one narrative. We released Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration to the public on February 5, and it became a much used road map for reporters, Congressional staffers, attorneys and interested consumers trying to understand how seven years of complaints, crashes, deaths, injuries and NHTSA investigations could produce so few results.

Our Advocacy

One of the fiery moments in Tuesday’s hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was Rep. Steven Buyer’s (R-Ind.) prosecutorial turn on SRS founder and President Sean Kane. Buyer attempted to undermine Kane’s testimony, and that of Dr. David Gilbert, whose early research into Toyota’s accelerator pedal position sensor showed that Toyota’s fail-safe strategy was supremely flawed, by suggesting that they had been tainted by their ties to litigation.