So What About the Defects?

In 2010, NHTSA levied nearly $50 million in fines against Toyota for flouting the recall regulations in three separate instances. The total represents the largest single fines in the agency’s history – and, (although we haven’t checked) quite possibly more than the agency has ever collected from any and all automakers in 40 years of existence.

This tough stance on recall timeliness is welcome – but does not resolve the larger issues raised by Toyota unintended acceleration – namely how defects are defined in the era of automotive electronics and how such defects are investigated when they are rare, multi-root-cause, and potentially deadly?

The dribble of documents released by the Multi-District Litigation and Congress so far show that UA has been duplicated by Toyota technicians and, contrary to attempts by Toyota advocates and agency investigators to pass off all incidents as driver error, sticky pedals, big shoes and floor mats, there are instances when reliable technical personnel take the vehicle for a test spin and experience UA with no pedal involvement. In fact, we have discovered that Toyota techs were able to duplicate UA in one of very public and widely debated case – but lied to the consumer about it. (We’ll feature that story in a future post.)

Double Ding for Toyota

Toyota closes out 2010 by shelling out another $32.4 million to the government for tardiness. The two fines – for failing to recall its floor mats and defective relay rods within five days of determining a defect – were disclosed yesterday.

Three record fines in one year ain’t beanbag. In all three cases – the relay rods, the accelerator pedal and the floor mats – Toyota had recalled the affected vehicles overseas months before it got around to recalling those components here. It’s refreshing to see the agency enforce the law. But penalizing a manufacturer for failing to file a timely defect report only requires counting to five. The agency will greet 2011 with the much more complicated issue of unintended acceleration hanging in the balance. We’ll address that in a future post.

In the meantime, back to the fines. The details were MIA. NHTSA did not say when it thought Toyota had a duty to recall those components. Toyota didn’t admit it did anything wrong. Since the agency hasn’t made its case for the penalty to the public, the Safety Record Blog will do it for them.

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota, Part II

After the Wall Street Journal plastered the front page a few weeks ago claiming NHTSA had “black box” (aka Event Data Recorder or EDR) data to support that driver error, not electronics, was the cause of the unintended acceleration issues in Toyotas, the headline is back yet again following a NHTSA Congressional briefing yesterday.

The WSJ in a subsequent story identified George Person, recently retired head of the recall division at NHTSA, as the source.  (see No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota and Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Acceleration Cover-Up)

Money for Nothing and Complaints for Free

Interesting fact: A raft of academic and industry studies show that customers who complain and have their complaint successfully resolved bring in more money to the company than it costs to fix the problem.

In the topsy-turvy Toyota World, however, it’s the customers who are already happy that get the red carpet treatment and big bucks. Have you heard about Nick and Sharyn Davis, from Parker County, Texas? You will soon. According to The Weatherford Democrat, the Davises are among the lucky winners in a Toyota advertising campaign, touting “real people with real stories about their Toyotas. And, the Davises are part of those real people.”

What Are You Lookin’ At?

Last week, TMS President Jim Lentz was full of fun facts to know and tell the committee on Energy and Commerce. For example:

“The company has completed more than 600 on-site vehicle inspections and our dealership technicians have completed an additional 1,400 inspections. We have submitted 701 field technical reports to this Committee, including on-site SMART team evaluations. These examinations are giving us a better understanding about the reasons for unintended acceleration complaints. Significantly, none of these investigations have found that our Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence, or ETCS-i, was the cause.”

What You Can’t Deny, Delay and Minimize

A well-used weapon in the manufacturer’s arsenal is delay. When the guys and gals from the Office of Defects Investigation are pestering you with information requests and you have that sinking feeling that you are going to have to do something to get them off your back, the first order of business is to buy some time. A defect in a component – or worse yet – a design that is integral to just about every model you sell is going to be a major headache. No way are you going to have enough replacement parts to switch out in hundreds of thousands or millions of vehicles all at once. You never want your company name in a headline with the word “million” and “recall,” followed by a news story skewering your product. And then there’s the dollars attached to the labor and parts costs swirling the bowl. Oy.

If you can just whack that big dog down to puppy size, or drag your feet long enough to ramp up your recall response, maybe it won’t be so bad. Of course, denial that the problem even exists is the top-line defense. As the documents trickling from the hands of federal investigators to the press indicate, Toyota was once a master of the art.

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.

Looking to the Past: Why Toyota isn't Audi

You wouldn’t troubleshoot the space shuttle by tinkering under the hood of the Spirit of St. Louis. But a surprising number of observers think that the answer to Toyota’s Sudden Unintended Acceleration problems can be found in the mechanical systems of a quarter century ago. Linking Toyota’s present troubles to those of Audi in the mid-1980s is a convenient shibboleth; it may even provide a lesson in corporate crisis management. But to figure out why so many Toyota makes and models across multiple model years are experiencing unintended acceleration in a variety of scenarios, we must resolve to understand modern automotive electronic systems.

Toyota Identifies Yet Another Potential Cause of Sudden Acceleration

Safety Research & Strategies letter to Administrator Strickland asks why Toyota it wasn’t recalling its accessory sport pedals. The automaker has identified these aftermarket accessories, which it sells and installs through Toyota dealers, as contributors to unintended acceleration.

Toyota made this startling admission in denying a claim by Michael Teston, an unfortunate Toyota customer from Maaumelle, Arkansas.

Death and Drive-By-Wire: New Evidence Shows Early Deaths were Ignored

We have been watching with great interest as NHTSA has suddenly proclaimed 34 deaths in Toyota sudden unintended acceleration incidents, (when nary but one has been officially counted in eight investigations) and Toyota has doubled down on nothing-is-wrong-but-floor-mats-and-sticky-accelerator-pedals. We are pleased to see that NHTSA, under the current administration, is now taking the fatality reports more seriously and Toyota’s claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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