By on February 24, 2010

After a big buildup by expert witnesses, and Toyota’s Jim Lentz’s evasion of any evidence that his firm’s cars are afflicted with an untraceable electronic gremlin, the House Energy Committe turned its attention to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Because LaHood’s department falls under the congress’s oversight (and carries the government’s ultimate responsibility for the safety of American motorists), LaHood might well have been the main focus of the committee’s investigation. And indeed his last-in-line billing appears to make him the event’s headliner. Or at least it would have if his testimony didn’t make the previous several hours of Ahab-ing largely unnecessary, and possibly even highly embarrassing.

Because committee members had to vote on the house floor, yesterday’s evening session was divided into two parts, the first of which saw LaHood deliver his eight-page prepared statement and the second of which was devoted to questions and (to a lesser extent) answers. The contrast between the two was marked.

LaHood’s prepared statement is a workmanlike document, which describes the NHTSA’s actions in relation to Toyota’s unintended acceleration scandal without resorting to the scaremongering of the previous two sessions. Contrary to reports from State Farm Insurance, which claims it warned the NHTSA of Toyota’s troubling UA statistics as early as 2004, LaHood’s testimony makes it clear that it opened its first investigation in March of 2007. That investigation led to Toyota’s recall of floormats in September 2007, and when another accident took place, it urged Toyota to once again contact consumers about the recall, which it did. When the NHTSA found that certain Toyota pedal designs might be prone to entrapment, it urged Toyota to perform another recall, which it did in October 2009.

Though LaHood said the NHTSA was investigating Toyota’s timeliness in announcing its recalls (results pending), he indicated that Toyota had largely complied with his agency’s requests:

Even after the NHTSA Administrator issues an order directing a recall, the manufacturer can avoid doing the recall until NHTSA proves its case in court. In such a case, the agency has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a vehicle defect exists and that it creates an unreasonable risk to safety. As a result, recalls occur most quickly when a manufacturer announces the recall without waiting for NHTSA to open and complete an investigation. That is what happened here — because of the pressure NHTSA applied.

In short, while Lentz was able to evade the committee’s main goal (evidence of mysterious electronic defects), LaHood actually helped mitigate the committee’s secondary concerns, namely that Toyota dragged its heels on recalls to the point of criminality. In the matter of the CTS pedal stickiness, LaHood once again confirmed that Toyota had been able to self-report and announce a recall before an NHTSA investigation had been launched (although a separate timeliness inquiry has been launched into this issue as well).

But LaHood’s exoneration of Toyota wasn’t left there. In the section of his testimony labeled “other instances of unintended or excessive acceleration,” LaHood notes:

The information NHTSA has received from consumers concerning unintended or excessive acceleration in vehicles can be divided into general categories that include: engine surging that lasts only a second or two; unintended acceleration from a stopped position or very low speed that results in quick movement over a short distance and sometimes results in crashing into an object; and events that begin at high speeds because the driver intended to accelerate quickly and continue for a sustained period of many minutes beyond what the driver intended. The possible causes of these events that NHTSA has been able to identify include mechanical problems with the accelerator; obstruction of the accelerator by another object; or human error (pressing the pedal)… for the high-speed events that last for many seconds or minutes, the only cause NHTSA has been able to establish thus far is entrapment of the pedal by a floor mat. The only exception to this has [sic] may have been a recent event in New Jersey that apparently did not involve floor mat entrapment but apparently did involve a stuck CTS pedal… with one exception, NHTSA has not been able to establish a vehicle-based cause for unintended acceleration events in Toyota vehicles not covered by those two recalls. The exception was a recall of model year 2004 Sienna vans in 2009 due to a defective trim problem that could, if loosened during servicing, entrap the accelerator at full throttle

With these issues established, LaHood had essentially let Toyota off the hook… at least until the ongoing investigation into “all possible defects in [Toyotas] vehicles that may be causing unintended acceleration” concludes. LaHood’s only mistake in clearing the record on Toyota’s behavior: it left him and his agency dangling alone on the committee’s hook.

Inevitably then, LaHood was asked if he and his agency bore some responsibility for the current scandal. His response showed that he hadn’t lost any of the experience he gained while serving on the other side of congressional inquiries [LaHood served as a representative of Illinois from 1994 until 2008]. From folksy cliches (“we will get into the weeds on electronics”) to use of the third person (“no one has talked more about safety in Washington DC than Ray LaHood”) to irrelevant examples of his commitment to the concept of safety (“we held a summit on distracted driving”), LaHood fought political posturing with political posturing. And because congress is ultimately responsible for NHTSA’s funding and oversight, he largely got away with it [with one major exception to be explored in a forthcoming post].

In addition to more general grandstanding, there are three legs to the bureaucrat’s stool: blaming predecessors, not being able to comment on ongoing investigations, and blaming a lack of funding. Unsurprisingly, LaHood brought each of these canards to bear on his questioners. LaHood admitted that the agency had come up short in the past (an admission based on the possibility that an undiscovered e-gremlin is still lurking in the background), and held up President Obama’s decision to add 66 new investigator positions to NHTSA and the possibility of further funding increases as a solution to future embarrassment.

As the questioning pounded away, LaHood retreated further and further into these self-protection measures. Though a note of shrill defensiveness crept into his voice, his positions didn’t change and other than an single, ominously dangling sentence (“I’m not going to trash Toyota’s North American leadership”) he didn’t indicate any damning malfeasance on Toyota’s part. After weeks of media speculation, and three witnesses worth of fearmongering, visions of damning evidence of Toyota malfeasance or NHTSA complicity in a coverup were all but buried by the time the questions ended. And in the grand tradition of theatrical farce, the hunter ended up hunting himself.

Congress holds hearings like these to uncover shocking evidence and to impress its constituents with its dedication to their safety and well-being. Having been enticed into believing that sinister conspiracies exist in Toyota’s software code and the halls of the NHTSA, the House Energy Committee uncovered only one actionable solution to the ongoing scandal: greater funding for NHTSA’s investigative capabilities. Put differently, after hours of posturing congress finally met the enemy and he was them.

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16 Comments on “The Toyota Testimony, Day One: A Comedy In Three Parts: Part Three: The Inevitable Punchline...”


  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    This guy is a d-bag. I’ve been listening to him on the radio today…2/3 years after the first reported incident, and suddenly, he is very upset, something must be done, we must get to the bottom of this…Where was he 3 years ago?

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Someone smarter than me has pointd out that our modern world is full of gadgets packed with the hi-tech electronics now used in the motor industry.Mostly they start giving trouble after 2 or 3 years , and we bin them and buy a new one.
    My car has a cable throttle , and I’ve no plans to change it.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      As has been pointed out before, cable throttles cause problems with greater frequency than electronic ones and are much more difficult to design with sanity-checking mechanisms.

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      Yes I will point out again that the 4th or 5th largest recall in the automotive history was for a GM motor mounts in the early 70′s that would fail, that would have the engine flop over and that would have the engine pull on the throttle cable resulting in…
      Yup you guessed it…
      Uncontrolled acceleration.

      A mechanical connection is NOT fool proof either.
      Learn how to shift into neutral.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Well-written story, EN, and I happen to agree with your take, particularly this statement:

    “Congress holds hearings like these to uncover shocking evidence and to impress its constituents with its dedication to their safety and well-being.”

    While the government properly holds some regulatory authority over businesses, those who believe in the nanny state also usually believe that Big Business is always skirting the law to make a buck. Believe it or not, folks, Toyota wants to resolve this stuff once and for all. They don’t need Congressional hearings to tell them that.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    “…with one exception, NHTSA has not been able to establish a vehicle-based cause for unintended acceleration events in Toyota vehicles not covered by those two recalls. The exception was a recall of model year 2004 Sienna vans in 2009 due to a defective trim problem that could, if loosened during servicing, entrap the accelerator at full throttle…”

    LaHood said this, but that dummy Lentz seemed incapable of making this simple statement. The current recalls cover all known cases of UA, and that’s what everybody wants to know, even equally dumb congresscritters. Simple.

    So it’s on to the hunting of the white whale, swimming around in a sea of electrons, underneath the vast expanse of sheet metal hoods everywhere.

    “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.”

  • avatar
    european

    LOL. now after this epilogue the cheerleaders for Toyota’s demise get to eat a full plate of hot ****!

    Bon Appétit!

  • avatar
    segfault

    “Having been enticed into believing that sinister conspiracies exist in Toyota’s software code and the halls of the NHTSA, the House Energy Committee uncovered only one actionable solution to the ongoing scandal: greater funding for NHTSA’s investigative capabilities.”

    That’s it? Sounds like a typical lame-assed ending to a political story. The American people demand a smoking gun!

    This witch hunt is as boring as Toyota’s products.

  • avatar
    BDB

    LaHood is such a blowhard, he needs to be replaced.

  • avatar
    ASISEEIT

    Since this Toyota quality challenge became public and became headline news I’ve noticed the Governors, senators, and other elected officials in the states where Toyota assembles it’s product crying foul accusing union loyalists for creating and sustaining the “Bash”. They also whine about the possibility of creating a situation in which jobs are at stake and the negetive affect on America’s already shaken economy! Well think back just a little while when these same “Elected Pieces Of Excreta” were engaged in a daily crucifixion of our domestic auto industry calling for their immediate bankruptcy and liquidation. This not only would have killed current employees but destroyed several hundred thousand old retirees many whom wouldn’t be able to start over. Just goes to show any thinking person that BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES are saturated with excreta and need to be flushed!!!

  • avatar
    werewolf34

    Everyone needs to watch the congressional hearings for 5-10 minutes. I’m mortified for everyone involved

  • avatar
    jkross22

    “add 66 new investigator positions to NHTSA and the possibility of further funding increases as a solution to future embarrassment.”

    Yeah, because we don’t want the NHTSA to be embarrassed. What could possible be worse, other than risking the public safety on the roads or a manufacturer not acting quickly enough to fix a potentially lethal design problem (software or otherwise).

    Why 66 people? Why not 50 or 150 or 10. Why not hire engineers rather than ‘investigators’? This is such nonsense, and it gives fuel to those like me who continue to believe that the only thing worse than corrupt private enterprise is having the same people running corrupt government programs.

  • avatar
    Steven02

    To me, the summary doesn’t quite match up with the opinion of the article. I don’t think he let Toyota off the hook at all, but did implicate the NHTSA.

    I don’t think the State Farm comment makes sense. If the NHTSA didn’t look into what State Farm told them, in 2004, it is the NHTSA’s fault for doing so.

    “Contrary to reports from State Farm Insurance, which claims it warned the NHTSA of Toyota’s troubling UA statistics as early as 2004, LaHood’s testimony makes it clear that it opened its first investigation in March of 2007.”

    Did State Farm say that the NHTSA opened an investigation? I am not sure why the word contrary is appropriate. It sounds like the NHTSA ignored the data, making the NHTSA more culpable.

    Also, what doesn’t seem to have been discussed is the negotiating of the recalls. I would like to know more about this form the NHTSA and from the automotive industry.

    Were statistics about UA complaints brought up? I would find it hard to believe that anyone would think that Toyota drivers are 10 times less likely to know how to control a vehicle than GM drivers.

    Why didn’t Toyota recall the CTS pedal initially when it thought there was a design problem in 2007? Why didn’t the NHTSA do the same when they found out about the issue? Were these questions asked?

    Were questions asked of Lentz regarding the service records of UA to the dealers? I mean, I assume somewhere Toyota has a database of problems reported. Would be interesting to know how that data was used.

    Oh, only if they allowed some people who have looked up some history on this issue ask some questions.


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