Every Time We Learn Something Else, It Gets Worse (for Toyota)

Some day, possibly very soon, the Harvard Business School is going to do a case study on Toyota and sudden unintended acceleration, and two of the underlying principles are going to be: Don’t lie so (bleeping) much; and Swat not the gadfly with a sledgehammer.

We know that Toyota has compounded its technical problem with a public relations disaster, but we’re always fascinated to learn that it’s worse than we thought – to wit Toyota v. David Gilbert.

This weekend, the Associated Press released a story by an enterprising writer about Gilbert, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale professor of automotive electronics, who demonstrated that Toyota’s failsafe strategy was supremely flawed and could result in a wide open throttle without the engine control module taking note. Gilbert, a Toyota owner, embarked upon his research out of personal curiosity and passed his findings on to Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Neither appeared very interested, so Gilbert contacted Safety Research & Strategies.

In February, Gilbert testified (along with SRS President Sean Kane) before Rep. Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee, which has held two hearings about Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration. Gilbert presented his preliminary report, fielded questions from Congress, and then the fun really began.

We’ve chronicled his ensuing troubles, after Toyota pressured SIU to shut him down. (See You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape), but AP writer Jim Suhr filed a Freedom of Information request for the correspondence from SIUC regarding Toyota and Gilbert, and unearthed some new tidbits. We have Toyota employees not-so-subtly threatening to curtail company donations of cash and cars to the university’s automotive program and suggesting that Gilbert be fired. (Toyota insists that its relationship to SIU is still rock-steady.) The e-mails highlighted in the story don’t do SIU any favors either – quaking before Toyota’s anger, after initially supporting Gilbert and his associate researcher Omar Trinidad.

Read the whole thing, its worth your time — and kudos to Mr. Suhr.