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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Stop the Pedals!

Toyota announced on Thursday that it was recalling about 2.3 million vehicles to correct sticking accelerator pedals, after investigating isolated reports of sticking accelerator pedal mechanisms. Toyota claimed it was a wear issue – even though most of the models recalled included 2009 and 2010 model years. After the news broke, several stories noted that Toyota was continuing to sell the affected models without the remedy already applied.  While it is normal for manufacturers who recall vehicles to instruct their dealers to repair vehicles on their lots before selling them, Toyota’s announcement today covers a number of the best-selling vehicles and the company will halt production at its North American plants until it has a remedy plan. 

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