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 characterized Toyota’s assurances to the committee that it had conducted extensive testing and research into the ETCS “baffling.”

“What we have learned is deeply troubling.  There is no evidence that Toyota has conducted extensive or rigorous testing of its vehicles or potential electronic defects that could cause sudden unintended acceleration.  Our colleague, Mr. Burgess said there's a top to bottom review; we shouldn't jump to conclusions.  Well NHTSA had -- but Toyota has already jumped to the conclusion and made it over and over again that they've ruled out any problem with the electronics.” (Read Waxman’s Opening Statement)

Stupak re-iterated:

“The record doesn't support Toyota's statements that it conducted extensive testing.  The truth is that we don't know whether electronics plays a role in sudden, unintended acceleration, and Toyota doesn't know either.” (Read Stupak’s Opening Statement)

The documents showed Toyota’s vow to devote itself to the grueling legwork of getting to the bottom of SUA to be an O.J. Simpson-like promise to find his wife’s real killers. The “extensive” testing turned out to be pre-market and prototype testing on an extremely small sample of vehicles and no testing of Post mass-produced vehicles. Exponent, purportedly hired with an unlimited budget to solve this technical mystery, was actually hired to protect Toyota in a class-action lawsuit. (Read the contract between Exponent and Toyota.)

Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also had a burr under under her saddle about Toyota’s claim of infallible failsafes:

“Furthermore, we learned that fail safe mechanisms in Toyota vehicles are designed to detect single-point, single event faults.  In other words, faults that occur in isolation and effect only one vehicle component.  Toyota's testing of critical components of the electronic throttle control system reflects this focus in that they do not test for multiple event or multiple component faults.  Numerous academics and independent experts told committee staff that rare multiple event faults could play a role in sudden unintended acceleration.  It seems to me that Toyota should try to identify all potential faults, not just the most frequent ones, and develop tests to prevent them.”

So, what has the world’s Ichiban automotive company with $1.2 billion in first-quarter profits been doing with all it’s time and money? Apparently, they have used it to go on a jihad against Safety Research & Strategies, Dr. David Gilbert and consumers who have been left holding the bag.

As we’ve reported previously at The Safety Record Blog, Toyota’s defense counsel and marketing team had been working feverishly to discredit SRS and Dr. David Gilbert, the automotive electronics professor from Southern Illinois University Carbondale who had the unmitigated gall to show that Toyota’s failsafes could fail, and therefore, were not very safe.

But the documents that the committee released supporting our stories were great reads. Toyota hired the Benenson Strategy Group, who worked for none other than POTUS himself, to test the automaker’s most effective lines of attack. Benenson, which bills itself as “a global strategic research and consulting firm known for its energetic, agile and analytically aggressive approach,” pinpointed SRS and Gilbert as Toyota Enemy Number One for their ability to influence the “Elites,” (who, by the way, are undefined.). After testing messages with a sample of consumers, BSG came to a few conclusions.

Here are a few of our favorites:

- Despite very low levels of awareness of Sean Kane and David Gilbert, all 3 audiences view the individuals as credible, with more than 8 in 10 saying they would be credible figures to discuss Toyota safety.

- Notably, the statements tested do work to significantly damage Kane to Gilbert's credibility

- However, while the statements are effective at increasing the proportion of audiences that say "ETC is not a cause of sudden acceleration", the majority of respondents still believe ETC is at least somewhat to blame for Toyota's issues.

Recommendations:

To have the most impact, particularly among Elites, Toyota needs to:

- Call out Kane/Gilbert's monetary or self interested motives to undermine credibility, indicate other third-parties have questioned their credibility

- Referencing other studies that reproduced same results on other vehicles to diminish the belief that ETC causes sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles

- Portray transparency, open and honest

(Read: Toyota Debunking Kane/Gilbert Message Study.)

Here’s Stupak unloading on Toyota:

“Toyota told the committee that the company did not follow its pollster's suggestion to attack Dr. Gilbert, but the documents suggest otherwise.  On March 8, a Monday, Toyota held a press conference and released a report by Exponent criticizing Dr. Gilbert's work.

Two days before the press conference, the vice president of Toyota's public relations firm noted in an e-mail to a colleague the importance of finishing the poll before this event saying -- and I'm quoting now -- "We really, really need to get this done especially with elites.  Toyota has a press conference on Monday and need our data to know what to say."  That's the document we have right here.” (Read the emails here)

As it turns out, you can hire the best and throw cash at a public-relations nightmare like SRS and still come up short. Who knew? Perhaps, it’s best expressed by BSG’s slogan:  With BSG, events don't shape you; you shape events.” And that did turn out to be true – although perhaps not exactly in the way Toyota paid for.

And speaking of paid-for, Exponent. The Menlo, CA firm’s work for Toyota was another sore point with the committee. Between 2004 and 2009, Toyota paid Exponent $11 million; for the SUA project, Exponent has so far billed Toyota $3.3 million for 11,000 hours of work. According to the contract, a team of five, including company principals Sabbaiah Malladi and Paul Taylor, can bill for a combined hourly fee of $1,665.

(Contrast that with the big-bad-bucks Gilbert was getting from SRS - $150 an hour and $4,000 in equipment – which was central to BSG’s debunking message of monetary self-interest. Maybe the Elites don’t realize what the Big Boys and Girls make per hour.)

The committee complained that Exponent was not responsive to its requests for documentation. That all it produced was the same interim report and the Gilbert study which Toyota had released publicly. There was no written project plan, no written timeline, no written specifications for the experiments Exponent had run or planned to run, no written list of potential causes of sudden unintended acceleration that it planned to study; no written notes on Exponent's work.

“A former Exponent engineer told our committee staff that the reason they didn't write anything down is to avoid creating documents that might have to be produced to the lawsuit,” Waxman said.  “Well, Toyota's lawyers appear to be involved in every aspect of Exponent's work.  The lawyers have the right to approve the publication of Exponent's work.  Dr. Souri reported that committee staff -- to committee staff that all communications with Toyota have counsel present.  And the two reports Exponent has issued both state that they were prepared for Bowman and Brooke, the law firm defending Toyota in litigation.”

(Gee, we wonder what Bowman and Brook attorneys make per hour?)

In a lengthy interview with committee staff, Dr. Shukri Souri argued that it wasn’t necessary to write all that down – it was so obvious, he just carried it around in his head.

Well, when you think about it, it’s kind of appropriate – after all, that’s what Toyota tells customers who have experienced an SUA event: it’s all in your head.

We could not possibly unpack all of the hearing’s revelations in one blog post, so stay tuned next week for our take on the 600 on-site vehicle inspections and the 1,400 dealership inspections TMS USA President Jim Lentz bragged about to the committee.


See yesterday's hearing

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