The Safety Record Blog’s Top Ten in 2014

1. GM Ignition Switches, the Big Opener for 2014

The Toyota Owners Left Holding the Bag

John Biello was not ready for the cruise control malfunction that sent his 2009 Tacoma careening down an exit ramp, then skidding into a rollover last June. But Tuesday, when he and his wife Diane appeared before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Insurance Board of Appeals to fight an automatic rate increase mandated by state law, Biello was fully prepared to educate the hearing officer about Unintended Acceleration problems in Toyotas.

As the great tide of cash washes from Toyota into the pockets of the U.S. government, attorneys, research institutions and some death and injury victims to settle fines and claims without an admission that the automaker’s electronic throttle control system is defective, owners like John and Diane Biello represent those left to deal with Toyota’s mistakes on their own. The Rehoboth, Massachusetts couple had no counsel, just a compelling account and a binder of public documents showing that Toyota Unintended Acceleration problems continue today and that juries and technical experts recognize what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not: Toyota’s badly designed electronic architecture can cause UA.

“I knew that there had been this unintended acceleration problem. I had read about it a couple of years ago,” John Biello says. “But I thought it pretty much done. I thought the problem was fixed and I didn’t really think my vehicle was involved because I got no Unintended Acceleration recall notices.”

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

To steal a line from Bogie: “Of all the publications in all the websites in all the world, she walks into Corporate Counsel.” She – being Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator from Israel who was tasked with translating from Japanese into English documents regarding Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Corporate Counsel -- being the self-described “leading digital destination for in-house counsel to find breaking news and practical information.” And this bit of breaking news? When you lie to the world about an automotive electronics problem that has the potential to result in fatal crashes, don’t expect every underling to keep your secrets.

The story, entitled Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration? (Spoiler alert: the answer is: No.) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a company in disarray with a technically challenging problem that its technicians weren’t looking too hard to solve, while its legal and public relations gears clicked into place to drive the denial machine forward. Our favorite:

“Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).

‘Tinto is extremely pessimistic,’ Hagiwara wrote, ‘and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can't completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).’ Tinto's primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): ‘For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year's situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.’ That failure, Tinto said, ‘may be a violation of the TREAD Act’—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.”

A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation's highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

Hindsight’s Still 20-20: The Toyota Quality Report

We here at the Safety Record Blog are getting caught up on our blogging after a hectic  before-the-holiday-weekend week attending Edmund.com’s Let’s Blame it on the Drivers conference and releasing our response to the NHTSA and NESC report on Toyota. If you haven’t had a chance to read this special edition of The Safety Record, you can catch it here.

And son of a gun if Toyota didn’t release its long awaited quality report on the same day! (A little awkward, we know.) This panel of Very Serious People outside of the company was charged with the task of evaluating just what went wrong:

“The Charter directs the Panel to conduct a thorough and independent review of the soundness of these processes and provide its assessment to Toyota’s senior management.”

So What About the Defects?

In 2010, NHTSA levied nearly $50 million in fines against Toyota for flouting the recall regulations in three separate instances. The total represents the largest single fines in the agency’s history – and, (although we haven’t checked) quite possibly more than the agency has ever collected from any and all automakers in 40 years of existence.

This tough stance on recall timeliness is welcome – but does not resolve the larger issues raised by Toyota unintended acceleration – namely how defects are defined in the era of automotive electronics and how such defects are investigated when they are rare, multi-root-cause, and potentially deadly?

The dribble of documents released by the Multi-District Litigation and Congress so far show that UA has been duplicated by Toyota technicians and, contrary to attempts by Toyota advocates and agency investigators to pass off all incidents as driver error, sticky pedals, big shoes and floor mats, there are instances when reliable technical personnel take the vehicle for a test spin and experience UA with no pedal involvement. In fact, we have discovered that Toyota techs were able to duplicate UA in one of very public and widely debated case – but lied to the consumer about it. (We’ll feature that story in a future post.)

Double Ding for Toyota

Toyota closes out 2010 by shelling out another $32.4 million to the government for tardiness. The two fines – for failing to recall its floor mats and defective relay rods within five days of determining a defect – were disclosed yesterday.

Three record fines in one year ain’t beanbag. In all three cases – the relay rods, the accelerator pedal and the floor mats – Toyota had recalled the affected vehicles overseas months before it got around to recalling those components here. It’s refreshing to see the agency enforce the law. But penalizing a manufacturer for failing to file a timely defect report only requires counting to five. The agency will greet 2011 with the much more complicated issue of unintended acceleration hanging in the balance. We’ll address that in a future post.

In the meantime, back to the fines. The details were MIA. NHTSA did not say when it thought Toyota had a duty to recall those components. Toyota didn’t admit it did anything wrong. Since the agency hasn’t made its case for the penalty to the public, the Safety Record Blog will do it for them.

SRS Releases Update Report: Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Eight months have passed since Congress called out NHTSA and Toyota for failing to address Sudden Unintended Acceleration. The agency and the automaker claim they've learned nothing new about the problem, but there's nothing wrong with our learning curve. Behind the barrage of PR are all those niggling little facts, and once again, SRS has assembled them into the go-to Toyota SUA reference guide.

Will Toyota Be Number One in Criminal Violations Under the TREAD Act?

Toyota’s announcement that it is the subject of a federal criminal probe in the relay rod recalls begs a question: Will it be the first automaker to be criminally prosecuted under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act?

Today, the automaker released – via a statement to the Tokyo Stock Exchange – the news that a federal grand jury in New York had subpoenaed the company on June 29 for documents regarding relay rod failures.

Toyota said:  “The company and our subsidiaries will cooperate with the investigation with sincerity.”

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.

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