Toyota conspiracy theorists have it wrong

We're becoming a nation of conspiracy addicts. It's not just the shots fired at the Kennedy motorcade from the grassy knoll in Dallas. These days it seems just about everything is up for some wide-eyed explanation, often pointing to some wicked government department or another. Even the Toyota safety scandal.

As a long-time NPR correspondent and commentator, I have spent a lot of time in recent months on the network's chat shows fielding questions about the sudden acceleration phenomenon and the safety of Toyota vehicles. Like clockwork, at least one listener per show will confide the "fact" that the crisis is really a concoction of federal bureaucrats trying to protect Chrysler and General Motors – the Treasury now owning a 61% stake in the latter maker.

That might make for good talk radio fodder, but even if the president himself were hoping to see Toyota stumble, the real facts are these: The Japanese maker's problems with runaway cars dates back long before Washington was asked to bail out Detroit; and as newly-uncovered internal documents reveal, Toyota knew it had a problem and went out of its way to hide that fact as long as possible.

If you aren't convinced by we media scribes, how about taking the word of Irv Miller, the recently-retired head of public relations for Toyota here in the U.S. Towering over the mere mortals of the automotive press corps, Miller seldom missed an opportunity to speak the company's praises – and call out an errant journalist who might have taken an inappropriate shot at the automaker.
It's quite obvious Toyota has engaged in questionable, very likely even illegal actions...

To his credit, Miller was equally stern on keeping the story straight behind the scenes, as becomes apparent when you read the e-mails he sent to his Japanese counterparts demanding that they "come clean" on the worsening sudden acceleration mess. The most damning document was sent by Miller to Katsuhiko Koganei on January 16, 2010, in which he used capital letters – the web world's way of shouting – to underscore his concerns.

"WE HAVE a tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models," wrote Miller, just weeks before his retirement. "The time to hide on this one is over," he concluded.

What triggered his wrath? Well, let's go back and look at the chronology to understand.

Follow the jump to read more.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

As I mentioned in a previous column, sudden acceleration – or as some prefer, unintended acceleration – is nothing new. The issue nearly destroyed Audi 20-some years ago, even after the American government's automotive safety watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) judged the problem to be one of driver error. Virtually every maker has had at least a few complaints lodged against it by owners claiming their cars suddenly surged out of control. But federal data show that, in recent years, the complaints involving Toyota have been disproportionately high, no matter how you add up the numbers. And a study by Consumer Reports shows that imbalance was already obvious long before the sudden acceleration scandal hit the headlines, which might be expected to trigger a wave of new complaints.

A fiery crash that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members, last August, triggered a recall of 3.8 million Toyota products for so-called "carpet entrapment," the possibility that loose floor mats could jam the accelerator pedal. Shortly after that October 2009 action, Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter denounced reports of other problems as "unwarranted speculation."
It now appears officials in Japan were reluctant to take the required next step: notifying NHTSA.

Problem is, at least some folks at Toyota apparently already knew there were indeed other problems. By June of 2009, the maker had become aware of a problem with sticky accelerators on some of its European products and it didn't take long to connect the dots, recognizing a similar issue existed here in the States.

But it now appears officials in Japan were reluctant to take the required next step, notifying NHTSA, or issuing a second recall. Part of the problem, in Toyota's eyes, was the lack of understanding as to what was causing the problem and, then, what to do about it. In his own note to Miller and other U.S. and Japanese officials, Koganei cautioned that there was a concern about "the uneasiness of customers," and recommended the company should sit tight because "the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed."

The problem is that U.S. law requires any car company aware of a safety defect to advise NHTSA within five days – this is the basis for the Department of Transportation's decision to levy a record $16.4 million in fines against Toyota, incidentally.

It appears that Miller's letter to Japan finally did break the logjam. Shortly afterwards, Jim Lentz, Toyota's top American executive, and Yoshi Inaba, his California-based boss, headed to Washington to come up with a recall plan.

But even then, Toyota appeared to be intent on revising the record in its own favor. In any number of interviews, I have been told that it was the automaker's decision to not only recall another 2.3 million vehicles to repair their accelerator pedals, but also to halt sales on eight models and temporarily idle production at five North American plants. Unless I am wrongly reading the documentation, it now appears that those moves were agreed to only reluctantly – and ordered by NHTSA, not Toyota.
If there were a conspiracy, it wasn't on the government or the media side.

In recent weeks, Toyota's PR team – now minus Miller – has been aggressively working to salvage the company's image with a mix of mea culpas and the occasional hardball. Following the leak of the Miller e-mail, the maker issued a terse statement acknowledging, "We did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls. We have subsequently taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again." Among other things, Toyota has named a new safety czar, Steve St. Angelo, and he has created a new team, dubbed SMART, that will respond to any new report of sudden acceleration within 24 hours.

But Toyota has hit back hard at critics who contend there are other problems with its vehicles, especially those who point to electronic control systems. And it has made the world aware when its investigations revealed a driver error or hoax was to blame for a vehicle's problems.

More disconcerting, however, have been reports that the maker has used every possible means to avoid providing more damning evidence in the growing number of lawsuits it is facing. A new report by the Associated Press states, "Toyota has engaged routinely in questionable, evasive and deceptive legal tactics when sued, frequently claiming it does not have information it is required to turn over and sometimes even ignoring court orders to produce key documents."

There is little doubt that at least some of the problems with Toyota products really are the result of driver error, perhaps even downright fraud, but it's also quite obvious that Toyota has engaged in questionable, very likely even illegal actions to delay notifying both regulators and consumers of serious problems with its products. If there were a conspiracy, it wasn't on the government or the media side, but within a company intent on protecting its products and profits, not the public.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.