Be Careful what you Wish for Toyota

Once upon a time, there was a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard for accelerator controls. It was a very ancient standard, written in 1972, when vehicles were equipped with purely mechanical systems. FMVSS 124 Accelerator Control Systems specified the requirements for the return of a vehicle's throttle to the idle position when the driver removed the actuating force from the accelerator control or in the event of a severance or disconnection in the accelerator control system. Its purpose was “to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from engine overspeed caused by malfunctions in the accelerator control system.”

Decades passed, and so did the mechanical systems, into automotive history. The car makers began to seek the wise counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: did FMVSS 124 apply to electronic systems? Yes it did, NHTSA said.

EDR: Toyota’s Electronic Doubt Receptacle

Earlier this week, police in Auburn, New York concluded that a fatal crash involving a 2010 Camry that plowed through a red light was caused by the driver, who suffered a medical condition.

Law enforcement based this in part on the results of the Camry’s Event Data Recorder (EDR) – aka, “black box” – readout, which appeared to show that the driver Barbara Kraushaar never hit the brake in the five seconds before her Camry struck a Ford Taurus, and killed driver Colleen A. Trousdale.

A news report in Syracuse’s Post-Standard quoted Auburn Police Lt. Shawn Butler, thus:

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.”

Toyota’s Credibility Gap Assumes Grand Canyon Proportions

Yesterday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Sub-committee rendered its verdict after conducting interviews with key personnel from Toyota and Exponent and reviewing some 100,000 Toyota- and NHTSA-produced documents about the much-heralded “exhaustive” efforts to determine if there was a connection between Sudden Unintended Acceleration and Toyota’s electronic throttle control system: Toyota lied.

While the committee and sub-committee chairs, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) respectively, did not state things quite so baldly, they came darned close in their opening statements:

Nothing to See Here Folks!

Ah, to view the world through rose-colored Lentzes. Toyota’s ultra-sincere CEO of Toyota Motor Sales climbed back into the House Energy and Commerce Committee witness chair to utter those words, to which the company has accorded the power of a magical incantation: There’s nothing wrong with our electronics.

Time for Another Toyota Timeliness Query

When NHTSA went after Toyota with a $16.4 million stick for failing to recall sticking accelerator pedals within the five-day regulatory time limit, Attorney John Kristensen couldn’t help notice the parallels between the automaker’s mañana attitude toward U.S. recalls in the 2010 pedal campaign and in a 2005 recall of defective relay rods.

Today, Kristensen, an attorney with The O’Reilly||Collins Law Firm asked NHTSA administration to launch a Timeliness Query into Recall 05V389 to replace defective steering relay rods in Toyota pickups and 4Runners.

(And the thud you just heard was that other shoe dropping we mentioned back in October. See Troubles Mount in Toyotaville.)

According to a chronology of the sticking CTS accelerator pedals campaigns, Toyota launched a silent recall for the in UK and Ireland in June 2009, followed by a full EU Technical Service Bulletin in September. Toyota didn’t announce a U.S. recall of the same component until January 21, 2010. Toyota said that the UK and Ireland got the fix first, due to the unique combination of the British weather and the right-hand drive configuration:

Waxman Probes Toyota’s Deal with Doubt

When the auto industry needs America’s best scientific minds to validate a foregone conclusion, they turn to Exponent. As we reported during Toyota Tactics Week, David Michaels called out the Menlo Park, California defense-litigation firm in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health:

Come Clean, Toyota

Okay, so it didn’t have the impact of a “Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?” banner floating over the Masters tournament at Augusta National, but retired Irv Miller’s “Come Clean” memo made a splash in the news this month. Miller had been group vice president of environmental and public affairs for Toyota in North America until he retired in late January. About two weeks before he left, Miller gave his Japanese boss Katsuhiko Koganei, Executive Coordinator of Corporate Communications, some straight talk about the automaker’s sticky pedal problems:

“Kogi,

I hate to break this to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models. We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean and I believe that Jim Lentz and Yoshi are on the way to DC for meetings with NHTSA to discuss options.

We better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming with a workable solution that does not put us out of business.” (Read the e-mail here)

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.

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