Waxman Probes Toyota’s Deal with Doubt

When the auto industry needs America’s best scientific minds to validate a foregone conclusion, they turn to Exponent. As we reported during Toyota Tactics Week, David Michaels called out the Menlo Park, California defense-litigation firm in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health:

“Exponent’s scientists are prolific writers of scientific reports and papers. While some might exist, I have yet to see an Exponent study that does not support the conclusion needed by the corporation or trade association that is paying the bill,” Michaels wrote.

Which brings us to the news: the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has scheduled their second Toyota hearing on May 6 to focus in part on the automaker’s work with Exponent to ferret out any possible electronic root causes of Sudden Unintended Acceleration.

In April 16 letters to Toyota Motor Sales President and CEO James Lentz and Exponent’s Paul Johnson, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, asked for:

* All contracts or agreements between Exponent and Toyota or an agent of Toyota regarding work related to unintended acceleration or electronic throttle control systems and any amendments or addendums thereto;

* All memoranda or correspondence, including e-mail, concerning the scope of Exponent’s work for Toyota or an agent of Toyota related to unintended acceleration or the electronic throttle control systems; and

* Any documents, including reports, analyses, or other communications, describing the results of Exponent’s work for Toyota related to unintended acceleration or electronic throttle control systems.

The views of Waxman and Stupak on Exponent’s scientific independence were already sufficiently jaundiced in the first go-round. On February 22, Waxman and Stupak sent a letter expressing their extreme irritation with Toyota for dumping a truckload of documents, with nary a piece of paper devoted to systematically investigating whether electronic defects could lead to sudden unintended acceleration – except for the Exponent report. They wrote:

“The electronics testing documents Toyota provided include thousands of pages of
engineering standards; test methods; pre-production vehicle and component evaluations; e-mail correspondence between Toyota engineers about field testing of new features of the company’s ETCS-i system; engineering change instructions; reports on field testing of competitor vehicles; and sketches, diagrams, test engineering reports, photographs, e-mails, and Powerpoint presentations by Toyota and part manufacturers related to proposed fixes for “sticky pedals.”

Except for one recent report, the documents did not include any analyses that purported comprehensively to test and analyze possible electronic causes of sudden unintended acceleration. The only document Toyota produced that claims to address the phenomenon of sudden unintended acceleration in a systematic way is a February 2010 report on testing conducted by Exponent, a scientific and engineering consulting firm located in Menlo Park, California. This report was commissioned in December 2009 by Toyota defense counsel Bowman and Brooke, LLP. Exponent representatives told the Committee staff that Bowman and Brooke requested the report just days before its publication date of February 4, 2010, at approximately the same time that we sought substantiation of your claims about electronics testing. According to Exponent, at the time the report was written, testing was still on-going and an interim report like this one is not customary for the company.”

The Committee has been using electronics expert Michael Pecht, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, and director of the University’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE), and veteran automotive engineer Neil Hanneman to locate the dross in Exponent’s first report.

What treasures might they find in this new cache of documents? Technical revelations? Or a behind-the-scenes view of the science-for-hire business?

More on Toyota SUA

Toyota SUA: Real Stories

Our Advocacy

One of the fiery moments in Tuesday’s hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was Rep. Steven Buyer’s (R-Ind.) prosecutorial turn on SRS founder and President Sean Kane. Buyer attempted to undermine Kane’s testimony, and that of Dr. David Gilbert, whose early research into Toyota’s accelerator pedal position sensor showed that Toyota’s fail-safe strategy was supremely flawed, by suggesting that they had been tainted by their ties to litigation. Continue reading

It’s Complicated: Concerned Citizen Drops a Dime on Toyota

As we all should have learned nine years ago from the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire maelstrom, it’s not often just one thing that creates a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Defect issues that rise to the top of the charts are frequently the result of a multitude of problems that align to create a widespread hazard.

In the Ford-Firestone case, it was the marriage of tires with several poor design characteristics compounded by manufacturing problems and the application on an unstable vehicle.  Add in the huge number of Explorers sold and the tires’ longevity, which kept them on the roads long enough to fail, and the result was rollovers, injuries and deaths.  Now comes Toyota, with thousands of unintended acceleration complaints across different models, makes and model years and an easy-one-size-fits-all root cause: floormats.

That explanation is swiftly becoming unraveled as quick-thinking owners – like the 2007 Avalon owner from New Jersey who managed to wrest his out-of-control vehicle right to the dealership, where the evidence was revving and smoking in front of the tech’s eyes and couldn’t be floor-matted away. (see Sudden Acceleration in Reverse).

Now a “Concerned Citizen” in Franklin, Kentucky has offered NHTSA another interesting piece of the puzzle: broke throttle body shafts.

On November 27, about a month after NHTSA closed its latest Toyota unintended acceleration investigation with another pedal interference conclusion, some Kentuckian’s conscience got the better of him/her. Here is the anonymous note addressed the then-Acting Administrator Ronald Medford:

“There are potentially hundreds of Toyota and Nissan vehicles driving American highways with cracked shaft throttle bodies. Japanese management up to and including company president was aware of the cracked shaft problem and told everyone to be quiet about this problem.

The failure mode on DFMEA for broken throttle shaft is no throttle control and potential wide open acceleration. The Toyota floor mats caused American deaths. Will you sit on this information and possibly cause more American deaths? It bothers me that I did not tell anyone sooner. I have another throttle body in same condition that can be sent to Automotive News.

Concerned Citizen”

Coincidentally, Franklin Precision Industry (FPI) in Franklin, KY manufactures throttle bodies for Toyota and Nissan.  FPI is part of Aisan Industry Co. Ltd., a large automotive supplier based in Japan, with its major shareholders Toyota Motor Corporation, at 35 percent and Toyota Industries Corporation at 18 percent.

NHTSA didn’t place the potential whistle-blower’s letter in the public file until Jan. 4.

Dear Concerned Citizen: Thanks for the tip.  We’d like to see that cracked throttle body shaft – and we promise to investigate swiftly.

More on Toyota Sudden Acceleration

Senate Commerce Committee Press GM and Chrysler

A bipartisan coalition of the 20 U.S. Senators comprising the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has written to Chrysler and General Motors urging the ailing automakers to back off of some of the more Darwinian features of their bankruptcies. Separate, but essentially identical, letters to James Press of Chrysler LLC and GM CEO Fritz Henderson raised questions about the fates of terminated dealerships and the technicians trained specifically to service their products. The letters also defended consumers, demanding answers to the companies’ provisions for providing access to rural customers and to their planned walk-away from the victims of defects.

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WF650-C three-wheeled “motorcycle” manufactured by Taixing Sandi Motorcycle Co Ltd, sold by Wildfire Motors

Alternative Vehicles Gain Popularity, But Skirt Regulations

Reprinted from The Safety Record, V5, I4, July / August 2008

STUEBENVILLE, OHIO -Don’t bother trying to buy a three-wheeled, two-passenger vehicle off the dealer’s lot. Motorists who want to get their hands on Wildfire Motors’ WF650-C will have to plunk down the full $7,064 purchase price in advance, and wait three months for delivery. As gas prices rise, consumers are turning to high-mileage alternative vehicles, such as three-wheeled motorcycles or mini trucks or small electric passenger vehicles in increasing numbers. They are marketed as “cars” or “trucks” with most of the capabilities of a passenger vehicle, but they are built to safety standards far below those required of traditional passenger cars and light trucks. Continue reading