Toyota Throws a Hissy

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 aired a six-minute-plus story about a 2006 confidential Toyota document showing that a pre-production vehicle in Japan experienced an unintended acceleration. The vehicle was an overseas model, identified as the 250L, equipped with adaptive cruise control. Its U.S. counterpart did not use that system, but the internal report did note that a “fail-safe overhaul” would be needed for another production vehicle that was sold in the U.S. -- the Toyota Tundra.

Toyota tried to fight off the story with the survival instinct of a 1,000-lb. blue marlin at the end of a reel and tackle. Its central argument was that the document had been mistranslated and the condition noted in the pre-production test had nothing to do with unintended acceleration. The automaker trotted out English language speaker and Toyota entertainment systems engineer Kristin Tabar to rebut the translation’s literal and substantive meaning. CNN paid a Japanese translation house with experience in automotive technical documents to take a crack at it, and its version was pretty similar to the first English translation. (You can watch the story here.)

There were a series of legal parleys, but when the dust settled, Toyota lost, the story aired and the public relations team was left with nothing but its poison pen. In high dudgeon, Toyota complained about CNN’s unmitigated temerity to suggest the Toyota has been less than truthful in discussing all of the possible causes of unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

Why Toyota Has a Whisker Across its Bumper

When you’ve shelled out big bucks for a message, the dissenters have to be squashed – and fast. Yesterday, Toyota public relations rapid response team tried to bring the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) problem back into its multi-million-dollar corral at the There’s Nothing to See Here, Folks Ranch.

Mike Michels, Vice President for External Communications of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., wrote an editorial, in response to a well-reported and written story by the Huffington Post’s Sharon Silke Carty about one of the most significant physical findings of the NASA Engineering Safety Center’s (NESC) study of the electronic causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles: tin whiskers. Tin whiskers are crystalline structures that emanate from tin and other alloys used as solder on printed circuit boards. These nearly microscopic metal hairs can bridge circuits, leading to electrical shorts and significant malfunctions. They have caused failures at nuclear power plants and medical devices and downed satellites. While we don’t believe that they are the cause of UA in all Toyota vehicles. Clearly, tin whiskers have been strongly implicated as a cause of UA in some Toyota vehicles.

NHTSA: No Evidence Prius Unintended Acceleration Linked to Known Causes

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has acknowledged what it has emphatically denied so far: Not all instances of Toyota Unintended Acceleration are linked to sticky pedals, floor mats or driver error. The UAs in a 2003 Prius witnessed by ODI engineers last May were not linked to “known causes.”

True, the agency response (see second page of report) to reporters’ questions about the Unintended Acceleration events two Office of Defects Investigations engineers witnessed, videoed and captured data from was tortured. The most interesting admission was swaddled in a lot of hot air about how wonderful and competent the agency is at ferreting out problems and protecting consumers, but it was there:

“We sent two investigators to evaluate and inspect a vehicle based on a complaint we received (complaint number 10428551) and did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases,” [emphasis ours] the agency said in a statement. “NHTSA concluded that the speed of the vehicle could easily be controlled by the brakes. In contrast to other UA complaints, the vehicle displayed ample warning lights for the driver indicating the car had encountered problems.”

Nine Recalls, Ten Investigations and Toyota Unintended Acceleration Continues

As part of our ongoing investigation into Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles, Safety Research & Strategies has identified 330 UA complaints reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for incidents that occurred in 2011. These complaints range from consumers who experienced multiple instances of UA to events that resulted in a crash. Below, we’ve captured six of those stories in interviews with Toyota owners.

In addition, a separate review identified 247 unique UA incidents following repairs made to the vehicle in one or more of the Toyota recall remedies.

The 2011 NHTSA complaint data suggest that Toyota has not recalled all of the vehicles in need of a remedy. The post-recall UA incidents, reported to the agency between February 2010 and January 2012, further suggest that the remedies were ineffective.

What is most striking in reading the 2011 complaints is how little anything has changed. The most troubled vehicles – the Camry, the Tacoma and Lexus ES350 – continue to show up in the complaints. The scenarios vehicle owners report are the same:

* Low speed incidents, often described as occurring while parking or repositioning a vehicle, during which vehicles accelerate or surge very quickly while the driver is braking or lightly pressing on the accelerator pedal.

* High speed incidents, often described as occurring on highways, during which vehicle speed increases without increased driver pressure on the accelerator pedal, or highway speed that is maintained after the driver has removed his or her foot from the accelerator pedal.

* Incidents in which vehicles are described as hesitating, surging, or lurching. Consumers reporting this type of incident often indicate that their vehicles are not immediately responsive to pressure on the accelerator pedal; instead there is a delay between operator input and acceleration, followed by higher acceleration than intended, often described as a surge or lurch.

    As ever, the vast majority are low-speed/parking incidents, resulting in property damage. However, there continue to be high-speed, long duration events and cruise control-related events. Toyota dutifully inspects these vehicles and tells the owner that the car is “operating as designed.” Dealers continue to follow the floor mat/driver error script.

    One thing that appears to have changed: more Toyota owners, now educated about Toyota’s UA problems, have a strategy for dealing with an incident and also take note of the position of their feet. Many drivers specifically report braking at the time of the UA, and shifting the transmission into neutral to bring the vehicle under control. Here are their stories.

    NAS Report on Vehicle Electronics and UA: More Weak Tea

    The National Academies of Science released today its long-awaited review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations, its regulatory policies and the agency’s next steps in dealing with electronic defects. The 16-member panel of volunteers, from a multitude of related disciplines, met 15 times over about 18 months, and were, at least, in attendance for presentations from 60 contributors.

    The panel’s most significant critique was an acknowledgement that NHTSA is ill-equipped to deal with the new age of vehicle electronics:

    “For NHTSA to engage in comprehensive regulatory oversight of manufacturer assurance plans and processes, as occurs in the aviation sector, would represent a fundamental change in the agency’s regulatory approach that would require substantial justification and resources (see Finding 4.6). The introduction of increasingly autonomous vehicles, as envisioned in some concepts of the electronics-intensive automobile, might one day cause the agency to consider taking a more hands-on regulatory approach with elements similar to those found in the aviation sector. At the moment, such a profound change in the way NHTSA regulates automotive safety does not appear to be a near-term prospect.”

    Conclusions like these pepper the NAS report. Throughout The Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics; Insights from Unintended Acceleration, the panel tries to have it both ways: to lay claim to a scientific process, without employing any actual science, to maintain that it was not second-guessing NHTSA’s investigations, but concluding that the agency was justified in closing them; to say that the Audi Sudden Unintended Acceleration controversy isn’t comparable to the Toyota debate because automotive technology has changed so drastically, and yet lean heavily on the 1989 NHTSA-commissioned report, An Examination of Sudden  Acceleration.

    Safety Research & Strategies Takes DOT and NHTSA Transparency Battle to Court; Sues for Toyota Investigation Documents

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts safety research firm that advocates for consumers on safety matters, sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today over the release of Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigation documents.

    The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 11-2165), alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

    “One of President Obama’s first acts was to issue an Executive Order on transparency and open government, pledging a commitment to creating ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government,’” says SRS founder and President Sean E. Kane. “The DOT and NHTSA have pledged transparency but have consistently kept vital information from the public.  The agency’s numerous investigations into Toyota Unintended Acceleration have been characterized by continued secrecy, preventing a full accounting of their activities and the complete replication of their analyses by independent parties.  This lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of documents that are relevant to a significant safety recall.”

    NHTSAball: How the Agency Plays the Game

    Moneyball has opened in the movie theaters, starring Brad Pitt as the redoubtable Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane had been a future baseball superstar who washed out after three seasons of bench-warming and bouncing between Triple-A and major league teams. He was, however, that rare individual who resisted his own PR, which was certain and glowing, and the perfect foil for the movie’s real subject: baseball statistics and how numbers could guide a poor team like the A’s to the playoffs more regularly than the conventional wisdom said was possible.

    The A’s, as Michael Lewis, author of the book on which it is based describes the team, was populated with Major League’s castoffs – catchers and pitchers who looked more like beer-swilling bowlers, college prospects that the talent scouts had deemed too cold to bother with, and a computer nerd for an assistant GM.  But Beane knew from his own field experience just how wrong Major League Baseball could be in assessing players. He chose, instead, to exploit a different set of metrics developed by a passionate fan who happened to be statistically apt, but shunned by the rest of Beane’s peers. Using this recipe, he cobbles together victory after victory.  The book roughly follows the A’s during the 2002 season, from the June amateur player’s draft to the historic September 4th game, in which the A’s won their 20th consecutive game – breaking a 102-year old American League record.

    Among the book’s heroes is Bill James. James is the quirky inventor of Sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball data, used to better understand success and failure in the game. James had a restless, numerically inclined mind and, it would be fair to say, an obsessive interest in baseball. The marriage of his aptitude and his interests produced a series of abstracts and books on baseball metrics, beginning in 1977. At first, James was ignored by all but a handful of fans. But, eventually, he gained a following. And in 1997 one of them became the manager of the Oakland A’s.

    If the narrative has a villain, it’s Major League Baseball itself. Wholly in the thrall of its own myths, this billion dollar enterprise, when it bothered with data at all, used it incorrectly. Rich teams could skim the obvious cream of talent, but beyond buying wins, hadn’t a clue how it was really done.

    Lewis’s point was that even with huge sums of money at stake, those most vested in the outcome can be utterly blinded by their own subjective biases. Once biases are institutionalized, they become facts, stubborn in the face of new or competing or different information. Those who can’t even identify the data that should be informing critical decisions – let alone using it properly – are bound to make expensive mistakes.

    So what’s The Safety Record’s point? We saw a number of striking parallels to the way NHTSA operates, when it comes to numbers.  The agency is, ostensibly, data-driven and science-based. Hell, it slaps that phrase on everything from Powerpoint presentations to appropriations requests. But there’s plenty of evidence that the agency dismisses – out-of-hand – outside information; that long-held beliefs hamper its data analyses; that it pays way too much attention to data that is not useful and fails to collect data that is.

    Moneyball: For example, here Lewis characterizes James’ assessment of MLB’s metrics:

    “Worse, baseball teams didn’t have the sense to know what to collect, and so an awful lot of critical data simply went unrecorded.”

    NHTSAball: There’s lots of data NHTSA doesn’t collect. For example, the agency has promulgated a recall system for tires that is predicated solely on the Tire Identification Number. Years of rulemaking were devoted to debating the format of the TIN, popularly known as the DOT code, an 11-character, alpha-numeric code that represents the plant, size, date of manufacture molded into the sidewall of a tire. The aim of the TIN was to identify a recalled tire and it is the only definitive measure to do so.  Does NHTSA require tire makers who recall their products to list the range of TINs in the recall population? No, it does not. Some manufacturers report it; others don’t. NHTSA’s good, either way. The DOT code would be a nifty little data point in any tire-related fatality in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The agency could use such data to identify tire failure trends, but it remains information uncollected. And while we’re on tires, NHTSA doesn’t require manufacturers to report tire claims if the tire is older than five years – so no data, no problem for the aged tire issues that took center stage following Firestone recalls in 2000 and 2001 and remain a constant source of catastrophic crashes.

    How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today

    Last month, we reported a Florida circuit judge’s extraordinary decision to set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, based on evidence and testimony that Ford had concealed an electronic cause of unintended acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and its own expert witnesses. Judge William T. Swigert’s 51-page decision in Stimpson v Ford also outlines how decades of the automaker’s dissembling to limit its liability in civil lawsuits helped to mire the thinking about root causes of unintended acceleration in the limited context of mechanical agency, even as the electronic sophistication – and the potential for defects and unanticipated interactions between systems – in vehicles grew.

    That a large corporation would conceal a deadly problem to protect its interests is hardly news – although the systemic and exacting strategies Ford employed in this case are notable. What makes this story important is how Ford also re-wrote the history on this issue and helped to shape the agency’s thinking about an ongoing problem for decades hence. We have only the public record regarding Toyota UA at our disposal – and precious little of that has actually been made public – so we can’t know how Toyota has assessed its own UA problem; if and what parallels in corporate misdirection might be drawn between Ford and Toyota. But one can see how Ford’s actions back in the 1980s still resonate with the agency today and how it has kept NHTSA from advancing its knowledge in electronic causes of UA that are not already detected by the vehicle diagnostics.

    The Emergence of a Defect in the Age of Audi SUA

    As recounted in the Judge Swigert’s order, the history of Ford and unintended acceleration goes back to 1973, when Ford’s cruise control was under development. Ford Engineer William Follmer “warned about the risk posed by electromagnetic interference, and cautioned that ‘to avoid disaster’ it was imperative to incorporate failsafe protection against EMI in the system’s design.” In 1976, two Ford engineers obtained a patent describing a design for the cruise control system's printed circuit board to reduce the risk of a sudden acceleration posed by EMI.

    Independent Scientists Find More Trouble in Toyotas

    A new technical paper from the research scientists at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) buttresses the findings of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA’s Engineering Safety Center investigation into Toyota unintended acceleration: Toyota vehicles with potentiometer type accelerator pedal position sensors have a propensity to grow tin whiskers that can and do cause shorts in a highly sensitive engine management area.

    Researchers Bhanu Sood, Michael Osterman and Michael Pecht studied a pedal assemblies performed a physical analysis of an engine control system from a 2005 Camry XLE, V-6 and an accelerator pedal assembly from a defunct 2002 Camry. The 2005 engine control system included the ECM, an accelerator pedal unit, throttle body, electrical connectors and electrical connecting cables.

    NHTSA Keeps Toyota’s Secrets, Part II

    Among safety advocates’ most vociferous criticisms of NHTSA and NASA’s investigation into Toyota Unintended Acceleration were the copious black smears over key bits of data and text in their twin reports released last February. These redactions have kept independent scientists from knowing exactly what the investigators did, irrespective of assessing the quality of the research.  (See: How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data)

    Alice and Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation, ever the assiduous students of NHTSA’s statistical and informational folkways, went for broke. Shortly after the reports were released, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for non-redacted versions of the reports and supporting material that was missing from the record. In response, NHTSA publicly released some of the information in the form of less redacted versions of Technical Assessment of Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) Systems and Technical Support to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Reported Toyota Motor Corporation Unintended Acceleration Investigation, but continued to withhold other information.

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