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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.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      It is not outrageous to think how differently the outcome would have been if Toyota had instead opted for western officials at the helm, rather than their home-grown Japan, Inc. ones. Toyota has always been, at best, indifferent; at worst, wholly uncaring, about the safety and value of of their products. This pattern of activity is exemplified by their callous disregard of repeated complaints of sludging engines, rusting frames and, now, faulty brakes, just to name a few. One could only imagine the bills for public relations firms that Toyota must have to retain any good will.

      One can only rightfully conclude that Toyota is a criminal enterprise and their ill-gotten gains were made off of the unfortunates that believed that their product was safe and of good value.
        • 5 Years Ago
        George B,

        Here's a simple and sane solution for you: do not buy a Toyota in the first place.

        With all of Toyota's quality and safety woes, that simply negates the several potential positives of owning a Toyota. They are not cheaper to operate (as evident of the various mechanical maladies that I outlined above), nor will they retain their value, now that the cat's out of the proverbial bag. All of the points I made about their consistent hiding of poor engineering and craftsmanship were not negated. The very fact that they failed to engineer a more fail-safe design, with respect to the embedded hardware control of the brakes is a glaring omission on their part. It is plainly obvious that Toyota achieved their market share and cost savings by cutting corners -- it is only beginning to coming to light that they don't give a damn about customer safety. Nobody, in good conscience, can rightfully recommend such unsafe and seriously compromised engineering to their loved ones.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I call BS. I think Toyotas are a little expensive and somewhat boring to drive, but the tradeoff is pay more money upfront for less frequent visits to the dealer, lower probability of expensive repairs after the warranty runs out, and better resale value.

        The problem for Toyota was the government was going to demand that they do something as soon as they reported this low probability event. What if the "solution" causes more safety problems than a potentially sticky accelerator pedal? Really tough to deal with rare events in high volume products..

        If I owned a Toyota, I wouldn't let the dealer modify the CTS accelerator pedal. Just update the software to add brake override without sawing, grinding, or adding a metal shim. I'd hold out for a Denso pedal assembly.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Affirming what we've been saying all along: Toyota has been playing fast and loose with safety and quality issues for many years and were finally caught. They never deserved their reputation as a standard bearer and they deserve all of the scorn that they currently receive from the press, from the US government and from individuals. It is too bad that it took as many deaths that it did for people to catch onto one of the largest frauds ever committed on the American people.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Please don't feed the trolls...
      • 5 Years Ago
      Let me start by saying I have always been a fan of Toyotas and have owned them myself. And I hope Toyota gets this worked out ASAP and gets themselves (not to mention their drivers) back on track as it were.

      But I was glad to see this article. Yes, you could make the argument of who else is doing this, what other industries are harming the public (and there are MANY). And by all means, this should be done. Articles like this are what used to be called "journalism." Today's mass media is in bed with the corporations and has cut far too many real journalists from employment. Very few still do investigative stories that have real impact.

      According to an article in The Los Angeles Times:
      "At least 56 people have died in U.S. traffic accidents in which sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles has been alleged, according to a Los Angeles Times review of public records and interviews with authorities."

      Fifty-six people dead. Families and communities shattered. And here you are telling everyone to "move on"? Wow. You must be either a Toyota stockholder or simply unaware of the scope of the problem and the suffering Toyota has caused. I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, though.

      These people died thanks to Toyota's greed and yes, hubris. All the while, Toyota has given us shiny, happy image ads extolling their own virtues.

      So I'm going to have to say no. Let's not take the spotlight off Toyota until the problems are completely fixed. Thank you, Paul Eisenstein and the rest of the real journalists. Let's see more investigative pieces and follow-ups across more industries. Journalism that makes a real difference.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Anyone thinking the government did this to Toyota is a moron that should be sterilized before they spawn. They join the same group that believes we hit the towers ourselves.

      Toyota has gotten caught playing games just so they could wrest #1 from GM. Which is sad, since had they just held to their prior actions (of high quality) they would have gotten there anyway (albeit later).
        • 5 Years Ago
        I agree with you. They should have just stuck to their normal sneaky tricks of currency manipulation, home market protection and bribe packages from right to work states to build factories, plus low overhead from lack of retirees PLUS making good cars to over take GM. It probably wouldn't have taken but an extra, what, 5-10 years at the most?
      • 5 Years Ago
      See my problem with this article is not whether Toyota did this or that. Paul Eisenstein makes some very valid comments in regards to Toyota's actions about the safety of its models. My issues is that typically these types of stories that blow up in the papers are often extreme cases of long-established norms in the industry.

      For example, one might make a strong argument that many of the risk-seeking activities of Enron lived on in other forms to help create the current financial crisis.

      To put it bluntly, nearly every large public company is guilty of doing questionable things, sweeping certain things under the rug as long as possible in order to boost profits and please shareholders. Certainly Toyota has to give some answers for its actions. But my follow-up question would be posed to the industry as a whole. What have other automakers, both domestic & foreign, done that has escaped the lens public scrutiny? Despite the propensity of visitors to Autoblog to burn Toyota at the stake, I doubt Toyota's case is the only one. And I think the general aversion to kicking Toyota while it is down felt across the industry is one indication of this.

      The media generally isn't very good at opening these issues to larger dialogue that questions entire industries -- preferring instead to focus on sensationalizing individual stories and poking a dead horse (which this article does very well, thanks!)

      I don't own a Toyota, but everyone I know who has a Prius seems to be just fine. Can we move on please? Thanks.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Oh, and this tidbit comes from NPR and AOL's Autoblog. Of course, I believe all of it.

        • 5 Years Ago
        People like you are just plain dumb.

        Stop having kids.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I like reading Mr Eisenstein, but lately the Detroit Bureau website raises flags with my security software. :-(
      • 5 Years Ago
      I guess the main lesson here is that Toyota is not a perfect company.
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