Trouble in Toyotaville

The last month’s news has generated enough tarnish to all but blot out Toyota’s sterling reputation, built over decades. To recap: Toyota launches largest recall in the company’s history for all-weather floor mats that may entrap the accelerator pedals after four die in a sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) crash in California; the company is under investigation for a severe rust problem with Tundras; former corporate attorney Dimitrios P. Biller, former in-house attorney who accuses the automaker of destroying and concealing evidence in rollover cases, produces four boxes of documents to a court in Texas.

The September floor mat recall, affecting 3. 8 million Camry, Lexus, Avalon, Prius, Tacoma, Tundra vehicles, could be Toyota’s attempt to get out in front of the latest NHTSA SUA investigation. Numerous SUA probes have been launched against multiple Toyota vehicles and then closed with either a finding of floor mat interference or with no conclusion. NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, for example, closed a 2006 Defect Petition into SUA in 2002-2006 Camry and Camry Solara vehicles with this caveat:

This in no way implies that we doubt the Petitioner’s reported experiences with his vehicle. Rather, the agency simply lacks evidence of a safety related defect in his vehicle or a trend of such defects in the subject vehicles. In view of the foregoing, it is unlikely that NHTSA would issue an order for the notification and remedy of a safety-related defect as alleged by the Petitioner in the subject vehicles at the conclusion of the requested investigation. Therefore, in view of the need to allocate and prioritize NHTSA’s limited resources to best accomplish the agency’s safety mission, the petition is denied.”

But, there is one investigation outstanding. In April, Jeffrey Pepski, a Lexus owner from Plymouth, MN asked the agency in a detailed and sophisticated defect petition to re-open its investigation into SUA in Lexus ES350s. He experienced an SUA event while driving at high speed, in which the vehicle accelerated to 80 mph. Pepski tried pumping and pulling up the accelerator with his foot – to no avail.  And Pepski’s floor mat was a standard carpet, not the all-weather variety said to trap accelerator pedals.  (That didn’t stop Toyota from assuring Pepski it was the floor mat.)

In May, Toyota took the unusual step of trying to kill the defect petition investigation in its crib by responding directly to the petition. It attempted a point-by-point take-down. NHTSA has not yet ruled on the petition.

And, in the latest twist, Toyota is instructing dealers to secure wandering floor mats with zip ties affixed to the driver’s seat frame. Toyota said that it had reviewed this “semi-permanent floor mat installation process,” by the agency and got the green light. According to the Car Connection, the automaker turned to the humble plastic wire tie to avoid manufacturing a new fastening system and to allow dealers to keep selling new and used inventory.  Hey. At least they didn’t use duct tape.

So far, the automaker is a step behind its pick-up truck rust problems. On October 6, the agency opened a Preliminary Evaluation into severe corrosion of the frame rails and rear cross-members of 2000 and 2001 218,000 Tundras, after 20 complaints. This follows a 2008 Toyota buyback offer covering more than 800,000 MY 1995-2000 Tacomas for rust.  In a major mea culpa, the company offered 150 percent of the highest Kelley Blue Book value on vehicles that weren’t repairable.  It also extended the warranty for the older trucks from the original of purchase to 15 years. No announced fix for beleaguered Tundra owners.

Dallas attorney Todd Tracy has been the first to get a crack at the documents supporting Dimitrios Biller’s explosive claims. Biller has dropped off four boxes of materials for an in-camera review. After a hearing last week, Judge Ward in the Eastern District of Texas, set a strict protocol for Toyota’s examination of the documents and a November 20 deadline for issuing a privilege log. After the judge rules on the privilege issue in a closed hearing, Biller will be able to testify under a court order.

The next shoe to drop may be new questions into a 2005 Toyota recall involving a defective steering relay rod in MY 1989-1996 Toyota trucks which results in complete loss of steering control. The recall came a full year after a recall in Japan for the same problem and after the company assured NHTSA it had no similar problems in the U.S.  Recent discovery by San Francisco attorney John Kristensen  finds that Toyota’s own records showed the defect was in fact occurring on both continents.  Toyota’s 2005 U.S. recall resulted in an unusually low 30 percent return rate.  In 2007 the company issued an even more unusual recall renotification fearing NHTSA would notice the low recall repair rate.  All of this was too late for 18 year old Levi Stewart of Idaho who was killed following a relay rod failure in September 2007.

In the wake of these disclosures and failures, new Toyota president Akio Toyoda made an astonishing apology before reporters at the Japan National Press Club earlier this month. That may save the company face. It doesn’t do much to save lives.