Manufacturing Doubt in Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration

Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels is on our nightstands right now, and we cannot shake the feeling of déjà vu. Michaels, recently confirmed as the new head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Assistant Secretary of Labor, writes about the attack, deny and delay tactics developed by Big Tobacco in the 1950s that have been adopted and refined to a fare-thee-well by countless other industries. Michaels is an epidemiologist, so his dizzying catalogue of bad actors focuses on chemical health hazards – tobacco, chromium, lead, beryllium, and the like.

But what caught our attention was his exploration of how manufacturers use science – or the appearance thereof - to raise enough doubt to clog the regulatory machinery and to persuade juries and the public that their products cause no harm by countering scientific studies indicating a hazard with their own bought-and-paid-for-research showing the opposite.

You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

In the innocent days of the distant past, (six weeks ago) Toyota Motor Corporation President Jim Lentz raised his right hand and swore before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Commerce and Energy that Toyota would work with Dr. David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University Carbondale to investigate the conclusion of his preliminary report, that the accelerator pedal position sensor may have faulty failsafe logic.

Perhaps Lentz actually meant to say that Toyota would work over Dr. Gilbert, because, rather than dispatch its technical team to Carbondale for scientific inquiry, Toyota’s corporate counsel Vince Galvin, accompanied by another lawyer and a gas turbine efficiency design expert from Exponent showed up at SIU to cowl university administrators, before treating Gilbert to a preview deposition.

Anatomy of a Smear

What do you do when bad news about you product gets out? If your highly prized brand is synonymous with reliability, job one is to kill the bearers of the bad tidings. While Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration stories regularly set up shop on the front pages of all national dallies these days, Safety Research and Strategies had been following this story closely for months before it broke through into the mainstream press.

After the Saylor family died in an SUA crash on a California highway in August, and Congress was poised to drag Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before its investigatory committees, SRS decided that a factual accounting of the history of this issue was necessary. We threw the resources of our small company into this project and wrote a lengthy report that gathered the public record into one narrative. We released Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration to the public on February 5, and it became a much used road map for reporters, Congressional staffers, attorneys and interested consumers trying to understand how seven years of complaints, crashes, deaths, injuries and NHTSA investigations could produce so few results.

Looking to the Past: Why Toyota isn't Audi

You wouldn’t troubleshoot the space shuttle by tinkering under the hood of the Spirit of St. Louis. But a surprising number of observers think that the answer to Toyota’s Sudden Unintended Acceleration problems can be found in the mechanical systems of a quarter century ago. Linking Toyota’s present troubles to those of Audi in the mid-1980s is a convenient shibboleth; it may even provide a lesson in corporate crisis management. But to figure out why so many Toyota makes and models across multiple model years are experiencing unintended acceleration in a variety of scenarios, we must resolve to understand modern automotive electronic systems.

16.4 Million Reasons Why it Ain’t Over Yet for Toyota SUA

Toyota now has two weeks to decide if it will accept or contest the $16.4 million fine levied yesterday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to resolve Timeliness Query 10-002, regarding its sticky accelerator recall.

On February 16, the agency opened three recall probes – Recall Query 10-003, which examined whether Toyota had too narrowly defined the scope of its recalls, and Timeliness Queries 10-001 and 10-002. The agency never publicly posted any documents on these TQs. They were referenced in the Opening Resume of RQ 10-003. (SRS was still waiting for a response to our FOIA request for the TQ documents when the fine was announced.) They examine whether Toyota met its statutory obligation to report a defect to the agency within five days of determining a defect or non-compliance.

Roll out the Recalls!

The 2008-2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid becomes the latest vehicle to be added to Toyota’s growing roster of makes and models to receive a new, trimmer accelerator pedal to avoid floor mat interference. Yesterday, Toyota sent a communication to its dealers announcing Phase 4 of “Safety Recall 90L on 2008 through certain 2010 Highlander Hybrid vehicles for potential floor mat interference with the accelerator pedal. All Highlander Hybrid vehicles are equipped with a Denso pedal. The same templates and gauges provided to dealers for the Camry (Phase 1) will be utilized.”

How Many Recalls Does It Take to Fix a Toyota?

So far, Toyota has launched five recalls to address what it claims are the only causes of unintended acceleration: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats. And yet, these “fixes” have failed to fix some vehicles.

Since the recalls were announced in September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received 97 complaints from owners who said they experienced one or more bouts of sudden unintended acceleration after the dealer performed the recall repair. Randy and Alice Whitfield of Quality control Systems Corporation have been downloading the complaints as they come in and are posting links to their complaints on their website:

Here’s a sampling of what’s out there (click on the ODI number to be taken to the original complaint record on NHTSA's site):

How Do You Stop a Toyota Hybrid? Myth V. Fact

California Prius owner James Sikes’ wild ride down a San Diego highway has been endlessly dissected. In one week, an army of investigators have uncovered and publicized every salacious and damning detail of the man’s existence here on earth. This sideshow, however, like other distractions in the rapidly evolving Toyota sudden unintended acceleration problem, has buried a much more important question: How do you stop a Toyota hybrid?

Response to Toyota and Exponent Regarding Dr. David Gilbert’s preliminary report “Toyota Throttle Control Investigation”

The purpose of Dr. David Gilbert’s research study was to contribute to a better understanding of Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) system malfunctions and the failsafe detection capabilities of some Toyota vehicles equipped with ETC.  His research primarily examined the failsafe detection capabilities of electrical circuitry, particularly, at the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor (APPS) and the voltages and associated wiring circuits.

The Cracks in Toyota’s Recalls are Showing Again

The witness chairs in the House hearing chambers hadn’t even cooled, when Toyota owners who dutifully took their vehicles into the dealership for a pedal fix were reporting more sudden acceleration incidents to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On February 24, the president of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, raised his right hand before an investigative congressional oversight committee and swore: “I'm absolutely confident that there is no problem with the design of the ETC system.”



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