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.

It was proud of its success in managing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Unlike other automakers, it had pulled off the gutsy move of hiring ODI staff directly from the agency. Negotiators who knew ODI from the inside – its culture, its process, its personalities – certainly couldn’t hurt. And up until recently it helped – a lot.

Toyota considered the management of its relationship to NHTSA a critical element in dodging defect investigations. Toyota’s Washington D.C.-based regulatory team consisted of two former ODI staffers, Chris Tinto, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs, and his assistant manager Chris Santucci. Both used their institutional experience to minimize the effect of any Office of Defects Investigations on the fortunes of their new employer.

For example, according to a deposition taken in Alberto v. Toyota, in 2004, during a critical phase of an investigation into SUA in Camry and Lexus vehicles, Christopher Santucci testified that Toyota and ODI had discussions about the scope of PE04021 early on. Later, in March 2004, ODI investigator Scott Yon wrote a memo noting that the scope of the investigation would be narrowed to eliminate longer duration events where applying the brake pedal didn’t stop the vehicle. This definition of SUA wiped away all of the incidents with the most harmful outcomes – injury and death. It also helped make the whole thing go away – PE04021 was closed with no finding

That delayed action for about three years. But in March 2007, the agency opened Preliminary Evaluation 07016 based on five complaints, three crashes and seven injuries. This investigation focused solely on the role of an unsecured floor mat in Toyota SUA. However, in this investigation, the allegations were more serious. Drivers told ODI that they experienced unwanted acceleration after releasing the accelerator pedal and that subsequent and repeated braking did not stop the vehicle. In some cases, drivers traveled significant distances at high vehicle speeds (greater than 90 mph) before the vehicle stopped. These were exactly the scenarios that the agency tossed out of consideration in PE04021.

Toyota tried to hit the brakes on this probe by sending out a warning to dealers and customer about the possibility of pedal entrapment.  But the agency bumped up the status to an Engineering Analysis in early August 2007. In a series of internal emails that month, Tinto and Santucci discussed the pressure that NHTSA was putting on the automaker to do something about the floor mat situation. Despite Toyota’s attempt to fend off further action by adding new warning labels, NHTSA was on the verge of issuing a public service announcement:

“They claim that this remains a serious issue, even subsequent to our mailings to Lexus owners;  They recognize that this is a misuse issue (stacked mats), however, they believe that something about the throttle pedal or floorpan design lends itself to easier jamming than other models produced in the past; they also believe that the Prius, Camry and Avalon may also be prone to being overly sensitive to floor mat jamming and claim to have some evidence of such; they claim that jamming can occur with Toyota mats or aftermarket mats; they claim that the issue is further complicated by the fact that NHTSA believes that customers do not know how to shut off the car when in motion (i.e. hold the start button for 3 seconds). NHTSA said that they feel that this is so important/urgent that they are considering a NHTSA public service announcement, informing the public to insure they install the mats correctly (i.e. proper clip use, and no stacking) as well as how to shut off the vehicle with the push button start,” Santucci wrote in June 2007.

NHTSA was also suggesting that Toyota install a brake-to-idle override, similar to the feature that Volkswagen had installed in its vehicles and to tweak the ignition button so that pressing the button multiple times would also turn off the engine. Toyota resisted ODI’s suggestions for a more comprehensive fix. Instead, the agency settled for much less. EA07010 was closed two months later, when Toyota initiated a limited floor mat recall campaign. One year later, Toyota executive Yoshimi Inaba boasted in an internal presentation that the company had saved $100 million in limiting the remedy of sudden acceleration in Lexus and Camry vehicles to a 55,000-unit floor mat recall.

Two weeks ago, NHTSA hit Toyota with the biggest fine it could: $16.4 million for failing to file a defect report on its sticking accelerator pedals within the five days required by regulation. Let’s remind everybody: sticking accelerator pedals have nothing to do with sudden unintended acceleration. One of the documents now available online is a chronology Tinto submitted to ODI showing that Toyota had confirmed the phenomenon of slow return of the accelerator pedal containing PA 46 friction lever in high temperature and humid conditions as early as January 2008. Six months later, “a meeting was held to discuss the phenomenon of Tundra accelerator pedals being slow to return. A decision was made that the phenomenon was not a safety-related issue.”

In the offing is likely another whopper related to the accelerator defect and, perhaps a third fine related to the floor mat recall – TQ10-001, according to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood’s broad hints. The latter will be interesting, indeed.

Less than two months after Inaba bragged about saving the company big bucks with a limited floor mat recall, the Saylor family died in an SUA-related crash. From that day forward, Toyota’s SUA problem accelerated out of control. A Consumer Advisory to remove accessory floor mats issued in late September morphed into a recall of 3.8 million vehicles by October 5. On November 25, Toyota rolled out a plan to reconfigure the accelerator pedal on vehicles going back to the 2004 model year, modifying the floor area around the pedal and in some models, installing a brake-to-idle override – this fix comes nearly three years after NHTSA informed Toyota that braking in these high-speed SUA events, was, to put it kindly, challenging. On January 27, Toyota added another one million vehicles to the floor mat recall. And, in late March it added the 2008-2010 Highlander Hybrid to the target population.

Starting from the first Lexus Sudden Unintended Acceleration investigation in 2003, Toyota bought itself seven years of delay – and counting. We know that errant floor mats, sticky pedals and driver error do not account for many consumers’ experiences. Will seven years of sowing customer discontent, tarnishing the brand, losing NHTSA’s confidence turn out to be worth it? While NHTSA does not have another SUA defect investigation open on Toyota, many well-qualified electronics experts are looking at the ETCS-i to determine what problems may exist in the software, the failsafe logic or the circuitry that could cause these vehicles can go to wide open throttle in a variety of scenarios.

If someone establishes a SUA root cause before Toyota, delay may turn out to be the more expensive route. (And that’s not even counting the $1 million Edmunds.com is offering to any researcher who can crack the unintended acceleration conundrum.)

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