You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

In the innocent days of the distant past, (six weeks ago) Toyota Motor Corporation President Jim Lentz raised his right hand and swore before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Commerce and Energy that Toyota would work with Dr. David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University Carbondale to investigate the conclusion of his preliminary report, that the accelerator pedal position sensor may have faulty failsafe logic.

Perhaps Lentz actually meant to say that Toyota would work over Dr. Gilbert, because, rather than dispatch its technical team to Carbondale for scientific inquiry, Toyota’s corporate counsel Vince Galvin, accompanied by another lawyer and a gas turbine efficiency design expert from Exponent showed up at SIU to cowl university administrators, before treating Gilbert to a preview deposition.

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.

Roll out the Recalls!

The 2008-2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid becomes the latest vehicle to be added to Toyota’s growing roster of makes and models to receive a new, trimmer accelerator pedal to avoid floor mat interference. Yesterday, Toyota sent a communication to its dealers announcing Phase 4 of “Safety Recall 90L on 2008 through certain 2010 Highlander Hybrid vehicles for potential floor mat interference with the accelerator pedal. All Highlander Hybrid vehicles are equipped with a Denso pedal. The same templates and gauges provided to dealers for the Camry (Phase 1) will be utilized.”

The Cracks in Toyota’s Recalls are Showing Again

The witness chairs in the House hearing chambers hadn’t even cooled, when Toyota owners who dutifully took their vehicles into the dealership for a pedal fix were reporting more sudden acceleration incidents to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On February 24, the president of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, raised his right hand before an investigative congressional oversight committee and swore: “I'm absolutely confident that there is no problem with the design of the ETC system.”

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.

Death and Drive-By-Wire: New Evidence Shows Early Deaths were Ignored

We have been watching with great interest as NHTSA has suddenly proclaimed 34 deaths in Toyota sudden unintended acceleration incidents, (when nary but one has been officially counted in eight investigations) and Toyota has doubled down on nothing-is-wrong-but-floor-mats-and-sticky-accelerator-pedals. We are pleased to see that NHTSA, under the current administration, is now taking the fatality reports more seriously and Toyota’s claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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