What Got Stuck in NHTSA’s Craw

More than a year ago, NHTSA whomped Toyota upside the pocketbook with a $16.4 million fine for failing to recall 2.3 million vehicles with defective accelerator pedals. It was just slightly more than chump change to billionaire Toyota, but at the time, everyone gasped at the largest civil penalty the agency had levied against an automaker –ever.

As described by Toyota, the so-called sticky pedals, manufactured by supplier CTS, were slow to return to idle and could become stuck in a partially depressed position. Just for the record, we’d like to remind our readers that the SRS has always argued that a sticky pedal has nothing to do with unintended acceleration--which is not to say that this problem isn't a safety defect -- it just doesn't lead to the type of unintended acceleration incidents reported by drivers.  But NHTSA and Toyota have always enjoyed conflating the two, without offering any evidence that sticky pedals cause unintended acceleration events. It gave the appearance that all concerned were actually doing something about the problem.

In announcing the meting out of its harshest judgment, NHTSA failed to make public the documents laying out its rationale. The agency officially informed Toyota and Ray Hang’em High LaHood informed the public on April 5, 2010.  And now, more than a year later; and after the agency has washed its hands of Toyota SUA and given the automaker a pass, and the reporters are off trying to find what Pakistan knew and when they did know it; and the business rag pundits are pointing hither and yon crying Shame! Shame! for picking on poor ol’ Toyota, NHTSA quietly posted the document which should have been made available a year ago. This sternly worded demand letter makes plain exactly why Toyota got fined $16.4 million dollars.

Now, even without the documents, most Toyota SUA-ologists knew the broad outlines: Toyota recalled the CTS pedal in Europe in September 2009, but waited until January 2010 to recall the pedals in the U.S. There was the January 16, 2010 famous “time to come clean” e-mail from former Toyota North America Vice President Irv Miller to one of his Japanese colleagues.

What we didn’t know was this: On October 7, 2009, a staff member of the Toyota Motor Corporation Product Planning and Management Division sent a copy of an Engineering Design Instruction describing the pedal remedy that was already implemented in Europe to someone at Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc. for the accelerator pedal of a RAV 4 manufactured in Canada. Two weeks later – and here the agency started making the words look angry –  “a member of the TMC PPM inexplicably instructed a member of the TEMA PPM not to implement this Engineering Change Instruction. Furthermore, in November 2009, Toyota provided NHTSA with FTRs regarding sticking accelerator pedals on vehicles in the United States but not with information regarding Toyota's extensive testing and determinations regarding the cause of the sticking accelerator pedals or an explanation of the significance of the FTRs.”

Then, Toyota waited another three months before meeting with NHTSA, at the agency’s request, to discuss the sticky pedal situation in Europe and the U.S. – all the while selling vehicles with the defect in the U.S. This is a violation of federal statute.

So, to recap:

2007 - The problem surfaces

January 2008 - Toyota pinpoints that the problem was in the composition of the friction lever material and issued an engineering change order.

2008- Problem continues

June 2009 - Toyota decides the first change didn’t work

May 2009 - Toyota institutes a second material change for the Yaris and the Argo

June 15, 2009- Toyota initiates a Technical Instruction to Toyota distributors in the U.K. and Ireland identifying a temporary field fix involving replacement of the CTS pedal with a modified Denso pedal.

July 2009 - Toyota implements rolling design change for CTS pedals in Europe, and states it plan to “commonize the friction lever in pedals used in other markets, including the United States.”

September 2009 - Toyota issues European Technical Instruction to recall the friction levers

October 7, 2009- Someone at the Product Planning and Management Division (PPM) issues an Engineering Change Order to fix the pedal on a RAV4 manufactured in Canada

October 21, 2009 – Someone at PPM rescinds the order

January 16, 2010 – Irv Miller tells the company to come clean

January 19, 2010 – Toyota meets with NHTSA to talk about the problem

January 21, 2010 – U.S. recall is announced

Jan. 26, 2010- Toyota stops selling vehicles with defective pedals.

 

Poor Toyota. Why does everyone pick on it?

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