By on February 9, 2010

Toyota heads up to Capital Hill tomorrow to face the ire of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing that’s been subtly named “Toyota Gas Pedals: Is the Public at Risk?” A memo by committee staff [via the WSJ] sets a paranoid tone for the hearing, as the NHTSA investigation widens beyond gas pedals alone:

Attention is now being focused on the electronic throttle control system (ETC) to determine whether sudden acceleration may be attributable to a software design problem or perhaps to electromagnetic interference. The committee staff found numerous complaints made to NHTSA describing sudden acceleration that was not caused by either floor mats or sticky pedals.

Toyota’s Yoshi Inaba will face the brunt of the questioning, although Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA administrator David Strickland will surely face questions about their oversight of Toyota (or lack thereof).

But Toyota and federal regulators aren’t the only folks being given an opportunity to testify before congress. Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook and Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies, Inc have been added to the docket. And you won’t want to skip past their testimony either, as it promises to be some of the juiciest. A recent PBS Nightly Business Report interview with Claybrook reveals her to be an impassioned advocate of tougher auto industry regulation, and a skeptic about Toyota’s claim that electronic systems are not malfunctioning. Kane is likely to be an equally compelling witness, as his firm recently released a comprehensive report [full document in PDF format here] on Toyota’s ongoing unintended acceleration issues, which includes such nuggets as:

there is ample evidence to suggest that neither Toyota nor NHTSA have identified all of the causes of SUA in Toyota vehicles or all of the vehicles plagued by this problem. Of the 2,262 complaints, about half are from drivers of vehicles that haven’t been recalled. The complaint data also show that replacing a sticking pedal or the floor mat will not resolve the problem… absent a mechanical cause, the automaker and the regulators must look more closely at the vehicle control systems, including the electronic throttle control assembly and the associated sensors.

With Kane and SRS Inc’s report hitting the mainstream media, Toyota is tooling up for what promises to be a full-bore assault along these lines of attack. So it comes as no surprise to hear that Toyota has picked up some K-Street backup, hiring Glover Park Group, who Politico calls “arguably the best-connected Democratic lobbying-communications shop in the capital.” Toyota has also signed the Beltway “powerhouse” firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates to handle damage control.

Meanwhile, the NHTSA might want some PR assistance as well. California Republican Darrel Issa laid into the agency, taking aim at its apparent laxness under Bush administration leadership. “With unresolved complaints documenting incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyota model vehicles as early as 2003, I have serious concerns about the agency’s actions under the previous administration,” Issa said in a statement. Issa claims that documents from the NHTSA show a pattern of dismissing unintended acceleration concerns, reinforcing fears of revolving-door malfeasance at the NHTSA first aired in an ABC News investigation.

Ultimately, there seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence that Toyota has not found a single cause for its unintended acceleration issue and that the NHTSA fared little better. But unintended acceleration is also a mysterious phenomenon, occurring at the intersection of of manufacturer defect and operator error. The likely result will be much congressional harumphing over an issue that might never be conclusively proven. All of which is bad for Toyota and good for competitors like state-owned General Motors and Chrysler. No wonder some are already calling this a “nationalist assault.” Tune in tomorrow for full coverage of the hearing.

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22 Comments on “As Hearings Loom, Toyota And Congress Gear Up For Battle...”


  • avatar
    John Horner

    Toyota has no lack of well paid friend in the US Congress.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100208/ap_on_bi_ge/us_toyota_s_friends

    “The Senate’s lead Toyota investigator, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, credits himself with lobbying Toyota to build a factory in his state.”

    “A member of a House investigating panel, California Rep. Jane Harman, represents the district of Toyota’s U.S. headquarters and has financial ties to the company.

    Harman and her husband, Sidney, held at least $115,000 in Toyota stock as of her most recent financial disclosure report. The company to which the couple owes much of their multimillion-dollar fortune, Harman International Industries, founded by Sidney Harman, sells vehicle audio and entertainment systems to Toyota. The two companies teamed up on a charitable education project in 2003, when Sidney Harman was Harman International’s executive chairman.”

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I’m sure that, if we looked hard enough, we’d find that GM and Ford have similar friends in Congress. Toyota didn’t invent this type of influence on the legislature.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      >>I’m sure that, if we looked hard enough, we’d find that GM and Ford have similar friends in Congress.

      Sure we can, in fact, the Feb 25th Toyota hearing will involve John Dingell, and not to mention a ton of others with a conflict of interest. In fact, I doubt Toyota’s paltry ties will help them much against the politicians they are up against;

      Dingell’s from his own .gov website:
      http://www.house.gov/apps/list/press/mi15_dingell/100203AnswersToyota.shtml

      Direct quote:
      Dingell has drawn criticism for his ties to the automotive industry. The three largest contributors to his campaign for the 2006 election cycle are political action committees, employees, or other affiliates of General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and DaimlerChrysler; since 1989, intermediaries for these corporations have contributed more than $US 600,000 to his campaign. Dingell also holds an unknown quantity, more than $US 1 million, in assets through General Motors stock options and savings-stock purchase programs; his wife, Debbie Dingell, worked as a lobbyist for the corporation until they married, whereupon she moved to an administrative position there At present Mrs. Dingell is a senior executive at General Motors and vice chair of the General Motors Foundation. On November 11, 2008, American columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the lack of innovative business culture in American auto industry, singling out Representative John Dingell:

      “The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago. Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the “honor” of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.”
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dingell

    • 0 avatar
      Telegraph Road

      @L’avventura,
      David Kiley of Business Week penned an intelligent rebuttal to the Tom Friedman piece you quote at length. http://www.businessweek.com/autos/autobeat/archives/2008/11/taking_on_the_n.html
      Tom Friedman has been strangely quiet the last two weeks.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      You all will want to hang on to some of your outrage for when the Supreme Court sanctioned corporate political donations get under way. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      @Telegraph Road

      You will need to be very naïve to think that politics doesn’t play into the magnification of this Toyota-debacle. And I mean this from both Toyota’s side and as well as the government’s side.

      While I haven’t seen evidence that any politician has acted to protect Toyota (they would be suicidal to do so in the current climate), I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that congressman that have conflicts of interest on behalf of Toyota would act in their self-interest.

      On the other hand, there are quite a few congressman like Dingell and Bart Stupak that do have close ties with Detroit and the UAW. Not to mention the current administration that has put a $60B gamble on GM alone and have the mid-term elections looming in the coming months. There is a conflict of interest with that as well, and again, it would be naïve to believe everything that has transpired within this story has not had an element of politics involved within it.

      There is obvious protectionist fear-mongering being committed by the current administration, and in the same respect Toyota is pulling every political string it has to save their sorry asses.

  • avatar

    Toyota may have friends in high places, but no one wants a public rectal exam administered by Congressman Showboat or Senator Grandstand. GM, Ford and Chrysler had some powerful friends, but this didn’t prevent them from being raked over the coals during the bailout hearings.

    • 0 avatar
      Johnster

      Raked over the coals? On what planet?

      Everyone knows that the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler got off easy. So did the heads of too many of our nation’s banks. Some of them received golden parachutes and too many of them still have their jobs, and are even collecting bonuses.

      And as for the public rectal exam administered by Congressman Showboat or Senator Grandstand, hey, that’s why they make they make the big bucks.

      They can at least EARN their money. If they don’t enjoy it, they should just fake it like any good prostitute. It’s part of being a professional. It’s called “acting.”

      If nothing else, Toyota had shown they are quick learners, so I don’t feel sorry for them as Congressperson Torquemada has his/her way with them.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark out West

      You’re joking, right. Congress? You could stand up and moon these clowns and the public would applaud. Vigorously.

  • avatar
    tced2

    Of course it could be an electronic malfunction – it is an electronic system. The “hurry up” atmosphere doesn’t exactly encourage the proper solution – it encourages a public relations solution which is not fixing or even learning of the real problem. “Recall theater”.

  • avatar
    european

    this is all pathetic whats being done to toyota.

    toyota is and will stay no1. GM will fail. get over it.

  • avatar
    jmo

    Do we know the median number of SUA claims be manufacturer? Buick must be pretty high, as I’ve know a few Buicks to launch through the backs of their garages…. So what if their drivers were in their 80s and had their licenses taken away – who’s to say it wasn’t SUA?

  • avatar
    tauronmaikar

    The world will be a better place without the Prius or other ridiculous hybrids.

  • avatar
    1996MEdition

    “The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote.”

    I don’t necessarily agree, but it sounds like these representatives of Michigan were doing the job they were elected to do…..represent the will of their constituents in congress.

  • avatar
    baldheadeddork

    Keep an eye on this: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-toyota-lawyer3-2010feb03,0,7374631.story

  • avatar
    tedward

    “nationalist assault”

    I just don’t see why, and I guess I mean Mr. Schmitt specifically, is taking this angle in the coverage of the Toyota dust-up. The media ginned this up because it has all of the elements of a sensational news story. It was unexpected, the public feels betrayed and threatened, and it allows us all to watch one of the mighty fall. If you could somehow get a Camry to bang a hooker while holding public office or steal a little white girl, it’d have much the same effect. The media created this from whole cloth and the politican’s are following, like they ALWAYS do.

    I think the government’s involvement is going nowhere for two reasons. These hearings, like almost every product scare/steroid investigation, have absolutely no bearing on the health or wealth of the nation and it’s people. The legislators know this, we (should) know this, and that lack of seriousness will turn any proposal of legislation or fines into a fundraising petition aimed at all automaker lobbyists. Second, the Toyota brand is a powerful (non-partisan) thing in it’s own right, and very few politicians will see a upside to attempting a full on demonization campaign, running through multiple election seasons and thus durable enough to actually get something done. So much easier to rabble-rouse against evil sodomites, pinko commies, gun collectors, redneck cowboys, or in the evergreen American tradition, immigrants.

    Think about how the southern senators have generally (yes, yes, exceptions exist) taken pains to specifically villify the UAW or government interference and not the Big 3 themselves, despite having more than enough political momentum to do so. Hell, they still use domestic vehicles as campaign props, because they know that there are “chevy guys”, or what have you, sprinkled amongst all political affiliations. Inoffensive popularity is the name of the game, and those that embrace the opposite strategy are obvious (Nader, Delay, etc…not a very popular bunch on the whole) in their inevitable failure on the big stage.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Witch Hunt! There certainly may be problems with Toyota, but this is purely a populist stunt designed to:

    a. Show support for the Democrats’ friend, the UAW
    b. Hopefully garner some blue-collar votes in the mid-west
    c. Distract the press from health care debacle
    e. Get some free publicity for “helping people”

  • avatar
    wsn

    Toyota may have invested a few bucks in the senate. But Obama has invested his political future in GM.

  • avatar
    mtymsi

    Fact of the matter is Toyota doesn’t yet know the real causes of the SUA in all of their vehicles. In essence Toyota is merely placating both their customers and the Feds with the recalls announced to date and at the same time trying to PR their way out of this mess. Since to date Toyota has done an absolutely miserable job on all fronts the fact that they don’t know all the answers yet and are not disclosing that fact will surely come back to bite them. Toyota’s actions or lack thereof across the board are their biggest problem, almost a textbook example of what not to do. Had they been upfront about the problem when it first started they’d be in a lot better shape today but they don’t seem to be able to figure that out. There continued stonewalling while trying to put a positive spin on it will exact its toll.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Raked over the coals? On what planet?

    Everyone knows that the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler got off easy. So did the heads of too many of our nation’s banks. Some of them received golden parachutes and too many of them still have their jobs, and are even collecting bonuses.

    And as for the public rectal exam administered by Congressman Showboat or Seantor Grandstand, hey, that’s why they make they make the big bucks.

    They can at least EARN their money. If they don’t enjoy it, they should just fake it like any good prostitute. It’s part of being a professional. It’s called “acting.”

    If nothing else, Toyota had shown they are quick learners, so I don’t feel sorry for them as Congressperson Torquemada has his/her way with them.


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