Come Clean, Toyota

Okay, so it didn’t have the impact of a “Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?” banner floating over the Masters tournament at Augusta National, but retired Irv Miller’s “Come Clean” memo made a splash in the news this month. Miller had been group vice president of environmental and public affairs for Toyota in North America until he retired in late January. About two weeks before he left, Miller gave his Japanese boss Katsuhiko Koganei, Executive Coordinator of Corporate Communications, some straight talk about the automaker’s sticky pedal problems:

“Kogi,

I hate to break this to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models. We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean and I believe that Jim Lentz and Yoshi are on the way to DC for meetings with NHTSA to discuss options.

We better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming with a workable solution that does not put us out of business.” (Read the e-mail here)

As we’ve said before: Denial is the manufacturer’s first defense. After all, how can you solve a problem you don’t even have? Toyota has a six-year (broken) record of asserting that its electronics system can not fail without setting a Diagnostic Trouble Code and that the brakes will always overcome a wide open throttle event.

Let’s review, shall we?

“Toyota believes that if the throttle had opened as was alleged by the complainant, and the consumer was applying the brake pedal as stated, the vehicle brakes would have restrained vehicle motion.” (PE04021, Toyota Response, June 19, 2004)

“In addition, the brake system and the ETC system are mechanically separated and work independently of each other. Therefore, even if the ETC system fails, the brake system still works as designed and unintended acceleration cannot occur. Furthermore, brake systems that fail mechanically leave evidence of their failure after the occurrence and do not return to normal operating conditions by themselves.” (DP05002, Toyota Response, November 15, 2005)

“As with any vehicle in production today, the ES350 service brakes are more than adequate in stopping a vehicle with a stuck throttle pedal. Customers would be aware that something is operating in an unusual manner, can apply the brakes and shut off the vehicle, as instructed in their owner's manual.” (PE0716, Toyota Response, June 11, 2007)

“Toyota has carefully evaluated the agency's concerns in the defect investigation EA07-010 and has concluded that the subject vehicles do not contain a safety related defect. With respect to the All Weather Floor Mats that are associated with the field incidents reported in EA07-010, Toyota concluded that the mats do not contain a safety-related defect; however, Toyota agrees that an unsecured All Weather Floor Mat, especially one that is stacked on top of another floor mat, can migrate toward the accelerator pedal, potentially preventing it from returning to idle.” (Toyota Defect Information Report, Toyota and Lexus Optional All-Weather Floor Mat, Recall 07É-082, September 26, 2007)

“After conducting an extensive technical review of the issue, including interviews with consumers who had complained of unwanted acceleration, NHTSA concluded that ‘…the only defect trend related to vehicle speed control in the subject vehicles involved the potential for accelerator pedals to become trapped near the floor by out-of-position or inappropriate floor mat installations.’ This is the sixth time in the past six years that NHTSA has undertaken such an exhaustive review of allegations of unintended acceleration on Toyota and Lexus vehicles and the sixth time the agency has found no vehicle based cause for the unwanted acceleration allegations. The question of unintended acceleration involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been repeatedly and thoroughly investigated by NHTSA, without any finding of defect other than the risk from an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat.” (Toyota letter to customers, November 2, 2009)

“As you are aware, Toyota has not determined that the condition at issue in EA08-014 is a 'safety-related defect" within the meaning of the federal vehicle safety laws, and – as summarized below - it continues to believe that no such defect exists.” (Toyota Defect Information Report, Missing Retaining Clip on Floor Carpet Cover in Early MY 2004 Toyota Sienna Vehicles, January 4, 2009)

“Although Toyota is willing to identify this campaign as a safety recall in the owner communication about the campaign, Toyota has not determined that the vehicles identified in item 2, below, contain a "safety-related defect" within the meaning of the federal vehicle safety laws.” (Toyota Defect Report, October 5, 2009)

“We can come up with no indication whatsoever that there is a throttle or electronic control system malfunction.” (Irv Miller, former Toyota spokesman, to the news media December 7, 2009)

“Toyota is confident that no defect exists in the ECU” (Toyota Answers Questions About the Sticking Accelerator Pedal Recall, Toyota website, February 3, 2010)

Translation: Defects? Are you kidding me? Stop bothering us! Our system can’t fail! Ever! Our brakes always work! Don’t listen to drivers! Everyone knows our customer demographic is somewhere between Methuselah and Old-As-Dirt!

There remains the pesky problem of drivers’ reports – drivers who are not elderly, drivers who did apply the brake, drivers who did not have all-weather accessory floor mats, drivers who presented a vehicle operating at a wide open throttle to the Toyota dealership.

Well, don’t you worry. Toyota’s got an app for that. This month, the automaker put its “Swift Market Analysis and Research Team” into overdrive. SMART – Get it? Another public relations effort to deny a problem and attack customers who complain about Sudden Unintended Acceleration.

But, when you believe that all your problems are image-related rather than product-related, stick to tactics – not technical analysis: Deny, Attack, Delay, and above all, Raise Doubt.

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