Toyota’s Credibility Gap Assumes Grand Canyon Proportions

Yesterday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Sub-committee rendered its verdict after conducting interviews with key personnel from Toyota and Exponent and reviewing some 100,000 Toyota- and NHTSA-produced documents about the much-heralded “exhaustive” efforts to determine if there was a connection between Sudden Unintended Acceleration and Toyota’s electronic throttle control system: Toyota lied.

While the committee and sub-committee chairs, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) respectively, did not state things quite so baldly, they came darned close in their opening statements:

Toyota: Honesty is More Than Just a Word

When Toyota starts talking about honesty – as they did, while paying a $16.4 million fine for violating the recall regulations – we start patting down the data. An interesting snippet floated by yesterday. As our readers know, manufacturers are required to file Early Warning Reports every quarter – information about legal claims, warranty data, production numbers, deaths and injuries – to help NHTSA spot emerging defect trends.

This regulation, enacted as part of the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act with great speed and good intentions, has had its share of problems. There was the four-year battle over what information would be public. (The agency and safety advocates envisioned a largely public data system; the manufacturers had an entirely different idea. Guess who won?). Then there has been the suggestion that EWR has not actually been useful as a statistical canary in a coalmine. Now we’re going to have to raise a few questions about coding.

Time for Another Toyota Timeliness Query

When NHTSA went after Toyota with a $16.4 million stick for failing to recall sticking accelerator pedals within the five-day regulatory time limit, Attorney John Kristensen couldn’t help notice the parallels between the automaker’s mañana attitude toward U.S. recalls in the 2010 pedal campaign and in a 2005 recall of defective relay rods.

Today, Kristensen, an attorney with The O’Reilly||Collins Law Firm asked NHTSA administration to launch a Timeliness Query into Recall 05V389 to replace defective steering relay rods in Toyota pickups and 4Runners.

(And the thud you just heard was that other shoe dropping we mentioned back in October. See Troubles Mount in Toyotaville.)

According to a chronology of the sticking CTS accelerator pedals campaigns, Toyota launched a silent recall for the in UK and Ireland in June 2009, followed by a full EU Technical Service Bulletin in September. Toyota didn’t announce a U.S. recall of the same component until January 21, 2010. Toyota said that the UK and Ireland got the fix first, due to the unique combination of the British weather and the right-hand drive configuration:

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:

What You Can’t Deny, Delay and Minimize

A well-used weapon in the manufacturer’s arsenal is delay. When the guys and gals from the Office of Defects Investigation are pestering you with information requests and you have that sinking feeling that you are going to have to do something to get them off your back, the first order of business is to buy some time. A defect in a component – or worse yet – a design that is integral to just about every model you sell is going to be a major headache. No way are you going to have enough replacement parts to switch out in hundreds of thousands or millions of vehicles all at once. You never want your company name in a headline with the word “million” and “recall,” followed by a news story skewering your product. And then there’s the dollars attached to the labor and parts costs swirling the bowl. Oy.

If you can just whack that big dog down to puppy size, or drag your feet long enough to ramp up your recall response, maybe it won’t be so bad. Of course, denial that the problem even exists is the top-line defense. As the documents trickling from the hands of federal investigators to the press indicate, Toyota was once a master of the art.

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.

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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