Akio Toyoda is spending the weekend in Japan, being prepped for his appearance in front of the modern day version of the tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition, better known as a Congressional Hearing.
According to Reuters, and as suggested by TTAC, Toyoda “is likely to undergo intense preparation. Toyota may hire lawyers to drill him with mock questions, one consultant said. A company source said it had not yet been decided whether Toyoda would speak in Japanese or English, but the company has already contacted some translation companies.”
The weekend drill was interrupted by the news that State Farm had informed the NHTSA as early as February 27, 2004, that the insurance company had five claims of unwanted acceleration in the 2002 Lexus ES 300 during the previous 12 months. Reuters broke the story, writing “the insurer said earlier this month it had contacted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. However, prompted by the public interest in Toyota, the insurer reviewed its records again and has now found that it contacted safety regulators initially in 2004.” All hell broke loose …
Hearing that, the DetN immediately dispatched reporters to the DOT in Washington, where they were told by Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair on Saturday that NHTSA was already aware of the issue as early as December 2003.
On March 2, 2004, State Farm sent data on 34 more claims to the NHTSA, including 18 on the 2002 Camry and 11 on the 2003 Camry. Two days later NHTSA opened a formal investigation of alleged unintended acceleration in the 2002-03 Toyota Camry/Solara and Lexus ES 300.
NHTSA closed the probe a few months later on July 22, 2004. “NHTSA dropped its investigation because it didn’t find a safety defect or any evidence of an unreasonable safety risk,” writes the Detroit News. “NHTSA had six separate investigations into sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles in the last decade — and required Toyota to do little.”
On hearing the news, Akio Toyoda and his advisers were making up their minds whether this was good or bad for Toyota. Renegade Toyota lawyer Dimitrios Biller talks of a “culture of hypocrisy and corruption” at Toyota. If Biller’s subpoenaed documents contain smoking gun residue, then Toyota will be toast.
However, there is a chance that LaHood will land in the hot seat at the hearings. Former NHTSA Chief Joan Claybroke had said before that NHTSA “were really lackadaisical in pursuing this case. In fact, they knew about it before 2007, there were six investigations by the agency. They were close because they really didn’t find anything. And I think they didn’t look hard enough.” She also said “I believe that Toyota did stonewall the NHTSA and the public.”
In an interview with Good Morning America, LaHood denied his agency had been asleep at the switch. We most likely will hear this sentence again on Wednesday:
“On my watch, I’ve been in this job a little bit over a year, safety has been our number one priority.”
And expect LaHood repeating versions of the following:
“Our safety people have been on 24/7 with these people and really held their feet to the fire. And we will continue to do that. We are not gonna let up. We are not gonna get lackadaisical about this. We will stay on this until every car is safe. They know we are watching them 24/7. We are feeling a strong obligation to the driving public, particularly those consumers who are driving Toyotas to make sure that every car is safe. And we will not rest until that happens.”
Speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, in the 5 minute interview, LaHood repeated four times that his agency is “holding Toyota’s feet to the fire.” He seems to miss the good old days when this wasn’t a figure of speech.
Further insinuating that Toyotas are a road hazard, and that a speech writer is polishing his lines, LaHood repeated at a news conference in Los Angeles: “We at DOT and we at our safety agency will continue to work 24/7 and we will not sleep until every Toyota is safe for every American who owns one.”
When LaHood was asked at the conference whether the government stands to benefit as a GM shareholder from its regulatory crackdown on Toyota, and whether there could be a conflict of interest, LaHood reverted to his own self: ”That argument is baloney.”
Just as Toyoda’s advisers are working hard to make their boss look good on the hill, LaHood’s writers will have their work cut out before the Transportation Secretary gets in the cross-hairs.