What Are You Lookin’ At?

Last week, TMS President Jim Lentz was full of fun facts to know and tell the committee on Energy and Commerce. For example:

“The company has completed more than 600 on-site vehicle inspections and our dealership technicians have completed an additional 1,400 inspections. We have submitted 701 field technical reports to this Committee, including on-site SMART team evaluations. These examinations are giving us a better understanding about the reasons for unintended acceleration complaints. Significantly, none of these investigations have found that our Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence, or ETCS-i, was the cause.”

That’s so nice, that Toyota let Congress see those reports. Customers are not so fortunate. The typical Toyota experience for owners who report an unintended acceleration incident is a visit to the dealership, where the vehicle is presumably checked out and given a clean bill of health. The consumer is not privy to what precise tests were conducted or what they showed. Customers who ask for the test data are told they aren’t allowed to have it.

Diana Buckley of Canton, GA hit a pole in a Lowe’s parking lot on April 10, after her 2004 Sienna lunged forward while her foot was on the brake. Buckley described maneuvering into the parking spot at a very low speed. Her foot was on the brake in preparation of bringing her vehicle to a complete stop, when the vehicle “lunged forward. I quickly looked down at my foot, and it was definitely, definitely on the brake. I pushed down, but it was too late – I only had 10 or 12 feet to respond,” she says

The Buckleys had already experienced seven or eight prior experiences, like the one that resulted in the parking mishap. Diana Buckley says they started in 2005 and 2006. Sporadically, in low speed situations, the driver would give the Sienna a little gas and it would hesitate and then lurch forward powerfully. The Buckleys had taken the vehicle in to the dealership each time, the vehicle was returned with a clean bill of health. Once, however, the dealership mechanic conceded:

“We’ve got lots of these complaints and sooner or later, they are going to have to do something,” Buckley recalled.

After her April incident, Buckley pursued a claim against Toyota. There was a six-week runaround between the dealership and Toyota. The company sent an independent inspector to look at her Sienna, who also cleared the vehicle. Buckley asked to see the Tech Stream data along with any other documentation of the tests and he politely told her that he wasn’t allowed to share the data generated by the vehicle with the vehicle owner. She would have to go to Toyota for that information. She’s still waiting.

Stewart Stogle, a journalist by trade and a dogged consumer by nature, was also left in the dark. Stogle, the owner of a 2009 Camry, ping ponged from Toyota to NHTSA trying to obtain the details contained within the field inspection report the automaker sent to the agency – to no avail: Stogle of New Rochelle, N.Y., experienced three bouts of sudden unintended acceleration in his 2009 model and turned his vehicle over to Toyota twice for a high-level corporate inspection. While Toyota gave him a copy of the Health Check, they would not release to him the more detailed field report. Here’s the digital brush-off from regional customer service manager Vincent Favorito:


Date: Friday, March 12, 2010, 4:45 PM

Good Morning Mr. Stogel.....

As per Toyota's Agreement with NHTSA, we agreed to perform a complete inspection on any vehicle where a customer complains about "Unintended Sudden Acceleration".... before or after the recall fix is complete. Furthermore, this includes vehicles that do NOT fall under one of our open safety campaigns. Upon completion of our inspection, a detailed Field Technical Report is submitted to our corporate office for review followed by submission to NHTSA.

After speaking with Joel Goldschmitt (Field Technical Specialist)....Joel indicated that he could not duplicate your concern after having "test driven" the vehicle for more than 200 miles under normal everyday driving conditions. In addition, Joel performed a complete "Health Check" (using a scantool) of the vehicles operating system to ensure the vehicle is operating as intended under the manufacturer's specifications. Last, Joel inspected the workmanship performed by the dealership to ensure that the "Safety Campaign" was completed properly.

Upon review of the various tests performed on your vehicle, Joel could not find anything abnormal that would impair the vehicles ability to operate normally and or safely. Attached for your review is a copy of your Repair Order and "Health Check" that you should have received from the dealership. These documents specifically explain what tests and repairs were performed on your vehicle as well as the outcome.

The "EDR Readout" you mentioned also commonly referred to as the Black Box only records data when the vehicle is in an accident whereby the airbags are deployed. Given that your vehicle was never in an accident it would be impossible to extract data that was never recorded. As far as the "Field Technical Report" that Joel submitted to our corporate office, please feel free to contact NHTSA to retrieve this report for your use.

Sincerely

Vincent R. Favorito
Regional Customer Relations and Field Technical Manager

Stogel tried mightily to pry the field technical report on his vehicle from Toyota’s, and then NHTSA’s hands. He’s still waiting.

Maybe Toyota doesn’t want to give consumers access to their own information because, as another persistent consumer found out – that “inspection” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Tim Kenkel of Denver CO drove his 2008 Rav4 Limited straight to the dealership after multiple SUA incidences in a half-an-hour time span. You’ll recall that the dealership tried to return it with a clean bill of health after claiming to have done a thorough inspection. Turned out that the thorough inspection consisted of looking at the driver’s side foot well. It was your floor mat, the technicians insisted. Kenkel asked to see the documentation of the tests, and that’s when the dealership revealed that it hadn’t actually run any diagnostics. His vehicle went back in the shop for real tests, and the techs found multiple diagnostic trouble codes.

Kenkel shared his paperwork with SRS and that’s when things got interesting. One page was entitled: “Toyota Dealer UA Process Flow” and sub-titled “Scenario II Owner claims to have experienced unintended acceleration, but has not been involved in an accident.”

What follows is an elaborate flow chart involving corporate claims case managers, owner interviews, and a more involved set of diagnostics that may involve an EDR download or a system scan. Woven neatly into the chart were the contradictions that have dogged Toyota and NHTSA since this mess began -- to wit:

Explain normal vehicle system characteristics that are of concern to the owner

Discuss what to do if the owner experiences unintended acceleration

Drivers are at the dealership because their vehicle does not exhibit characteristics that would be considered normal in any automotive universe. (Or maybe Toyota’s saying that it’s normal for your vehicle to suddenly redline? Not sure.) As for any discussions about what to do if unintended acceleration occurs, they’d have to be pretty short, because Toyota has repeatedly argued that UA can not occur in their vehicles.

The $64,000 question: What’s Scenario I? Kick the tires? Drive the vehicle and see if the intermittent and random fault occurs? Return it to the customer and blame the floor mats? Just asking.

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