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.

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.

Dimitrios Biller and the Book of Knowledge

Last week, Ed Towns, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform went to town on Toyota, asking five very pointed questions about the automaker’s “Books of Knowledge,” compendiums purportedly containing, among other things, damning information about the automakers acknowledgement of design issues and countermeasures, by component and vehicle. References to these so-called Books of Knowledge appeared in documents produced under a committee subpoena from former Toyota counsel, Dimitrios Biller. In a letter to Yoshimi Inaba, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, Towns asked him to respond to e-mails such as this June 2005 correspondence to Toyota executive Webster Burns, regarding the Greenburg SUA lawsuit:

"When this lawsuit was threatened, no one was surprised. This issue [sudden unintended acceleration] had been the subject of a number of meetings and the exchange of a number of documents between TMS and TMC, (did anyone ever gather and organize all those documents and memorialize the "meetings"? If so, were [sic] are the documents and information about the meetings?) [emphasis indicates Biller's comments] and the possibility of a class action lawsuit was used as one way to try to get TMC to work on a series of proposed countermeasures.”

Juanita Grossman’s Story: How Do You Slam Into a Building with Both Feet on the Brake? Nobody Knows.

Juanita Grossman was a petite 77-year-old woman who died from the injuries sustained from barreling into a building full-speed in her 2003 Camry in March 2004. When the emergency medical technicians arrived to transport Mrs. Grossman to the hospital they found her with both feet still jammed on the brake pedal.

Mrs. Grossman was still conscious, and in the days before she succumbed to her injuries, she kept telling her family: The car ran away on me. The car ran way on me. These statements and the placement of both feet on the brake – verified by two independent witnesses at the scene of the crash – did not rouse the curiosity of Toyota or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was in the midst of an investigation into Toyota’s electronic throttle control system when ODI investigators learned of her death.

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.

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.

Toyota Sudden Acceleration: The Full Report from Safety Research & Strategies

SRS has just released its comprehensive examination of Toyota SUA. Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration covers this continuing safety defect from its roots to the current crisis:

- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's unsuccessful efforts to identify all the causes;

- Toyota's ineffective and conflicting responses;

- Who knew what and when.

Click on the image below to download the report:

Well, They Had to Do Something!

We polled a couple of graduates of the Toyota School of Hard Knocks for their reactions to Friday’s sticky accelerator pedal recall, and the consensus was: this wouldn’t address my problem.

Kevin Haggerty, owner of the 2007 Avalon that arrived at the New Jersey dealership in a state of automotive hysteria (the vehicle, not Haggerty), said he surprised by the specifics of this recall, but not by Toyota’s attempt to look responsive.

“They needed to come up with something, but I don’t think it’s going to end the problem. I don’t think the accelerator pedal stuck in my case.”

In a Los Angeles Times article, Toyota disputes this. Spokesman Bryan Lyons said that Haggerty’s experience “matches our recall finding exactly.” Of course, Toyota gave Haggerty’s Avalon entirely new pedal and throttle assemblies, but Haggerty believes that the automaker took the broadest possible repair approach for a reason:

“I don’t where I got the nerve, but it sure felt good.”

So says Christina Catalano, after her brief confrontation with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marcchione at a dinner yesterday night sponsored by Automotive News World Congress, as part of the North America International Auto Show in Detroit.

Catalano is the daughter of Linda Catalano who died on August 3, 2008.  The 55-year-old mother and grandmother had completed a garage sale and had left her home several blocks away to collect the remaining sale signs along the road.  She evidently stopped the vehicle along the roadway to pick up a sign.  She placed her vehicle into what she must have believed to be Park and opened the door and stepped out of the Chrysler Mini-Van to pick up her signs, with the engine running and the driver’s side door open.  The vehicle then “self-shifted” into reverse, knocking Catalano to the ground and dragging her underneath the left front tire, where it pinned her.

CPSC Workshop on Building a Public Database Less Adversarial

The tone was less adversarial and more collegial as the U.S. Product Safety Commission held its first public workshop (see The End of the World as We Know it!) on the establishment of a Public Consumer Product Safety Incident Database this week.

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