Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Accleration Cover-Up

The splash that retired NHTSA recall division chief George Person made when he told The Wall Street Journal that the agency was sitting on a report that would show driver error to be the cause of Toyota SUA events has been submerged by a new wave of reality, as attorneys heading the Multi-District Litigation (MDL) charged in a class-action complaint that Toyota knew since 2003 that it had an SUA problem it could not explain and its own dealers witnessed some events.

The MDL, filed this week on behalf of Toyota and Lexus owners alleging that the automaker’s SUA defect has caused their vehicles to lose value, shows that Toyota has known, at least since May 2003 that its Electronic Throttle Control had a “dangerous” unintended acceleration problem with an unknown cause. That civil action, and a second one claiming damages for Toyota and Lexus owners who were injured or killed in crashes alleged to have been caused by SUA, cite six incidents which occurred between 2003 and 2010, witnessed by Toyota technicians, dealers and others. The e-mails also show that Toyota spent considerable energy trying to divert NHTSA from looking too closely at the issue. Here are some highlights from the class-action complaint:

No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota

The Wall Street Journal made a splash yesterday when it reported that the US DOT had analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles in crashes blamed on unintended acceleration and found that the throttles were open and brakes were not applied.  These findings support Toyota’s position that SUA events are not caused by vehicle electronics, the Journal claimed.  The Journal apparently based its report on information leaked by Toyota, because NHTSA is denying any involvement.

Toyota’s efforts to place the story with the Journal seem to be paying dividends –  literally. The automaker’s stock rose 1 percent on the news and reporters scrambled to repeat the Journal piece with no independent sources.

Every Time We Learn Something Else, It Gets Worse (for Toyota)

Some day, possibly very soon, the Harvard Business School is going to do a case study on Toyota and sudden unintended acceleration, and two of the underlying principles are going to be: Don’t lie so (bleeping) much; and Swat not the gadfly with a sledgehammer.

We know that Toyota has compounded its technical problem with a public relations disaster, but we’re always fascinated to learn that it’s worse than we thought – to wit Toyota v. David Gilbert.

Toyota Washington Watch

We sat through the National Academies of Science first public meeting to tackle the Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration Study, a NHTSA-sponsored effort to look broadly at the issue, and we are happy to see that the agency has brought in some outside expertise.

This is truly an opportunity for the regulators to advance their knowledge base beyond the era of the mechanical automobile and into the age of automotive electronics, rapidly migrating from a vehicle’s entertainment center to its most basic functions of acceleration, braking and steering. It is critical to future policy setting and defect analysis.

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.

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:

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:

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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