The Toyota Owners Left Holding the Bag

John Biello was not ready for the cruise control malfunction that sent his 2009 Tacoma careening down an exit ramp, then skidding into a rollover last June. But Tuesday, when he and his wife Diane appeared before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Insurance Board of Appeals to fight an automatic rate increase mandated by state law, Biello was fully prepared to educate the hearing officer about Unintended Acceleration problems in Toyotas.

As the great tide of cash washes from Toyota into the pockets of the U.S. government, attorneys, research institutions and some death and injury victims to settle fines and claims without an admission that the automaker’s electronic throttle control system is defective, owners like John and Diane Biello represent those left to deal with Toyota’s mistakes on their own. The Rehoboth, Massachusetts couple had no counsel, just a compelling account and a binder of public documents showing that Toyota Unintended Acceleration problems continue today and that juries and technical experts recognize what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not: Toyota’s badly designed electronic architecture can cause UA.

“I knew that there had been this unintended acceleration problem. I had read about it a couple of years ago,” John Biello says. “But I thought it pretty much done. I thought the problem was fixed and I didn’t really think my vehicle was involved because I got no Unintended Acceleration recall notices.”

Toyota’s Motion is Extra-Judicialious!

Two judges have turned down Toyota’s request to bar Plaintiffs from speaking to the press about their unintended acceleration cases.

Guadaloupe Alberto of Flint, Michigan died in April 2008, when her 2005 Camry accelerated out of control, left the roadway and struck a tree. Alberto was known as a cautious driver; the 2005 Camry is known as one Toyota’s most problematic UA vehicles. Alberto v. Toyota is now set for trial in February 2014.

In September 2007, Jean Bookout and her friend and passenger Barbara Schwarz were exiting Interstate Highway 69 in Oklahoma in a 2005 Camry. As she sped down the ramp, Bookout realized that she could not stop her car. She pulled the parking brake, leaving a 100-foot skid mark from right rear tire, and a 50-foot skid mark from the left. The Camry, however, continued speeding down the ramp, across the road at the bottom, and finally came to rest with its nose in an embankment. Schwarz died of her injuries; Bookout spent two months recovering from head and back injuries. Bookout v. Toyota is also soon headed for trial in the District Court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma.

On Sept. 4, Toyota moved for a gag order in Alberto, to stop the family and its attorneys, including West Virginia lawyers Benjamin Baily and Edgar “Hike” Heiskell III, from talking to the press.

“Defendants believe that statements to the media and the release of witness deposition testimony will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing the proceedings and jury selection as prospective jurors should consider only the evidence present at the trial,” the automaker argued.

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

To steal a line from Bogie: “Of all the publications in all the websites in all the world, she walks into Corporate Counsel.” She – being Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator from Israel who was tasked with translating from Japanese into English documents regarding Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Corporate Counsel -- being the self-described “leading digital destination for in-house counsel to find breaking news and practical information.” And this bit of breaking news? When you lie to the world about an automotive electronics problem that has the potential to result in fatal crashes, don’t expect every underling to keep your secrets.

The story, entitled Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration? (Spoiler alert: the answer is: No.) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a company in disarray with a technically challenging problem that its technicians weren’t looking too hard to solve, while its legal and public relations gears clicked into place to drive the denial machine forward. Our favorite:

“Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).

‘Tinto is extremely pessimistic,’ Hagiwara wrote, ‘and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can't completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).’ Tinto's primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): ‘For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year's situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.’ That failure, Tinto said, ‘may be a violation of the TREAD Act’—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.”

Lexus RX Floor Mat Recall: NHTSA’s House of Cards Adds a New Floor

An examination of NHTSA records surrounding a June recall for floor mat interference in 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used mischaracterized data to buttress its request that Toyota recall the floor mats. Further, NHTSA ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause for the unintended acceleration complaints consumers filed with the agency.

These documents affirm the pattern that has characterized NHTSA’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations – both informal and official -- since 2004:

  1. Dismiss the consumer’s description of the event, unless it conforms to the agency’s presumption of driver error or mechanical interference.
  2. Accept the explanations of the automaker or dealership of driver error or mechanical interference as completely accurate – even in the absence of any empirical evidence to support the contention.
  3. Dismiss any evidence of an electronic cause
  4. Settle for a limited, ineffective recall.
  5. Wait for another high-profile incident, consumer petition or accumulation of complaints to repeat the process

SRS has been examining the factual underpinnings of NHTSA’s actions in Toyota Unintended Acceleration since 2009. As we have in the past, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to Toyota’s most recent floor mat recall. We received 58 pages of documents, some of which were redacted under FOIA exemptions for confidential business information, personal identifying information and sections deemed “deliberative process.”

As we don’t know what information lies behind the redactions, we cannot assess the totality of the evidence behind NHTSA’s decision to seek a floor mat recall. However, what the unredacted portions show is there is scant evidence of a widespread floor mat interference problem and there is even less logic in the complaints NHTSA claims support its argument that a problem with the mats exists. But, there is much more evidence in the narratives of consumer complaints suggesting electronic causes of UA in 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Toyota: The Other Numbers

This morning National Public Radio reported Toyota sold 5 million vehicles in the last six months.  These strong sales numbers mean the company may be poised to regain the number one automaker slot from GM.  This talk of Toyota numbers had us here at Safety Research & Strategies looking at some other data -- complaints involving Toyota unintended acceleration and what’s been reported publicly in the last year.

And we would be remiss if we failed to note Toyota’s latest directive to the press about how to properly address Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane.  But first, the numbers:  We reviewed unintended acceleration incidents involving Toyota vehicles reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between June 1, 2011 and July 17, 2012.  To identify these reports, we examined the NHTSA data for all consumer complaints containing keywords related to UA that were submitted during that time period. We then reviewed each complaint record to determine if it described a UA incident. So here they are:

- 368 total incidents

- 36 involved vehicles described as having had at least one UA recall remedy performed prior to the incident.

-  95 reported injuries; none of these incidents resulted in a fatality.

So what do we make of this?  Despite the Very Important Scientists and the Secretary of Transportation LaHood’s proclamation that “The verdict is in” and “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period,” consumers are still taking the time to report their experience to the government – and many report incidents that don’t seem to be explained by floor mats, “sticky” pedals, or driver error.  You can read them here.

Toyota and the Case of the Electronic Floor Mat Entrapment

As the last work week in June slouched to a close, Toyota announced another floor mat recall – this time for 154,000 model year 2010 Lexus RX350 and RX450 H vehicles. Frankly, we were slack jawed. This is the automaker’s fifth floor mat recall since 2005 and the eleventh alleging that unintended acceleration was caused by something interfering with the accelerator pedal – all weather mats, plastic trim, condensation in the pedal’s friction lever. That’s double digits, people.

NHTSA quickly claimed credit for influencing the recall:

“NHTSA approached Toyota regarding this issue late last month after the agency observed an increase in consumer complaints and other reports regarding pedal entrapment in these vehicles. When Toyota confirmed last week that it had received a significant volume of complaints on the same issue, NHTSA asked the manufacturer to conduct a recall.”

We guess that at this point, NHTSA and Toyota are tight enough that the agency can dispense with the whole investigation thing and just pick up the phone. So, the public doesn’t know what data the agency collected, and how many complaints directly to Toyota constitutes “a significant volume.”

The agency said that it had “carefully” reviewed “the available data” and “does not currently believe the issue involves additional vehicles beyond those indicated as part of the recall.” “..NHTSA anticipates the remedy proposed by Toyota will address the problem.”

Sadly, we do not share the agency’s confidence.  We have carefully reviewed the 2010 RX350 speed control complaints and we noticed something pretty interesting. Drivers were reporting that during the unintended acceleration event, the “brake failure” telltale on the dash was lit up. Check out ODI 10445439, reported to NHTSA last October:

On Oct. 5, 2011 at 7:45 am, I was traveling on a one lane road each way in rural Connecticut (35 mph zone). I decided to pass a car that was traveling well below the speed limit when my Lexus RX350 lurched forward suddenly and then had a huge burst of accelerating speed. I applied my foot to the brakes and the car slowed very slightly, but started to buck a little and then once again felt like it kicked into a higher gear. My dashboard was flashing "brake failure." as I looked down and saw that my foot was firmly planted down on the brakes. Fortunately, there were few cars on the road and only once did I have to pass a car on a blind curve hoping no one was approaching from the other way, so as to avoid ramming a car in front of me. I had resolved in my mind that I was going to crash, and was trying to find a place to take the car off the road while trying to minimize injury to me. I stopped looking at my speed, but it was clearly in excess of 60 mph in a 35 mph zone. I was lucky that day, since there were few cars on the road and the stretch of road I was on was fairly straight. I drove this way for about 1.5 miles when it then occurred to me to shift the car into neutral. Once I did this, the car eventually reduced speed to about 5-10 mph. I threw the car into park and jumped out of the vehicle, which at this point was engulfed in smoke from the failed brakes. Lexus blamed the incident on a stuck accelerator pad, although they admitted when the car came to their shop the pad was not stuck. I know factually that the pad was not stuck, since I looked down at my feet during the episode and saw my foot on the brake, and the accelerator pad in its normal position. This was clearly an incident of sudden acceleration.

Or ODI 10445422, concerning a January 25 UA:

“I went out to grab a bite to eat for my daughter and I came to a stop light at a major intersection. I received the turn arrow so I accelerated thru the turn and then punched the gas to make it thru the next light that will turn red if you don't give it a little gas to get thru it. I make it thru the light and get in the right lane to slow down to make my turn and my brakes don't work and my car starts accelerating on its own. I have no control of the speed so I throw the car in neutral and keep slamming the brakes while the brake malfunction light appears. I’m not sure how my car slows down and I make a right turn into a parking lot and my engine is still sounding like it is accelerating and I am in neutral. My car rolled to a stop, I shut it down and called the Lexus line. The [sic] had a towing company out within an hour and the tow truck driver told me this is at least the 10th time he has hauled this type of car for the same thing.”

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:

Is This the Best You Can Do?

Time to gas up the Toyota PR engine. Yesterday, ABC News broke the latest allegations of Multi-District Litigation – that Toyota technicians had duplicated owners’ SUA events in incidents that didn’t set DTCs, and in two cases, bought back the vehicles and swore the customer to secrecy. (Remember that expensive advice Toyota bought in February from the BSG Group? “Portray transparency, open and honest.”) In response, the World’s Number One Automaker sputtered:

Toyota’s Quiet Buybacks Speak Up

ABC News got a hold of the amended complaint in the Multi-District Litigation and is reporting that Toyota bought back two of its vehicles after its own technicians replicated the SUA events, which were not caused by floor mats, driver error or sticky pedals. According to the ABC story, Toyota bought a 2009 Corolla in Texas and a 2009 Tacoma in California, urging the owners to keep quiet about it.

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.

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