Welcome to amateur hour. As reported yesterday, The Wall Street Journal claimed in a story that Toyota’s “data recorders can lose their information if disconnected from the car’s battery or if the battery dies—as could happen after a crash.” Their source was “a person familiar with the situation.” Commentator Carquestions concluded that the source doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. After we wrote about it, Carquestions fingered the not so knowledgeable source as “a secretary within Media Relations at the DOT.”
Instead of talking to a secretary, the WSJ could have done what we did: Call Toyota headquarters in Tokyo. It took TMC spokesman Paul Nolasco less than 10 minutes to round up an engineer, and to confirm to TTAC that Toyota’s “EDRs use non-volatile memory.” For the non-nerds: Non-volatile memory doesn’t lose the information when the battery dies. Remove the battery from your cell phone. Put it back in. Your phonebook, your messages and pictures of questionable nature will still be there. Non-volatile memory in action.
As Carquestions also correctly points out, the U.S. code for EDRs (to come into effect in 2012) specifies that “data recorded in non-volatile memory is retained after loss of power and can be retrieved with EDR data extraction tools and methods.”
Now nobody forces Toyota to comply with a code that isn’t in effect yet. To extinguish any lingering doubt, Nolasco said: “Our EDRs are designed to retain their memory even after they are disconnected from an electric power source.”
Why did the WSJ rely on “people familiar with the findings”, and not on the people familiar with the Event Data Recorder? Why are anonymous sources used if people who can lose their job if they talk nonsense are ready to answer a simple question? Why did the WSJ even print a story that was old hat as readers of the Financial Times know?
You think the story ends here? No, it doesn’t.
Yesterday, another story was floated: The British site Just-auto reported that the Wall Street Journal story was “planted by Toyota.” Just-auto even found a source for that assertion, an unnamed “NHTSA spokeswoman in Washington” that supposedly said: “That story was planted by Toyota. Toyota is the source – yes we know that for definite.” Jalopnik ran a similar story, claimed they “spoke with a NHTSA employee (who wished to remain nameless)” and said that they “received a somewhat similar response.” Why does it smell like Jalopnik called absolutely nobody, and simply cribbed the Just-auto rumor? And why does it appear as if Just-auto talked to the same ditzy secretary that had never heard of non-volatile memory?
The big story (driver error) wasn’t planted by Toyota. It had been told by Daniel Smith and Richard Boyd of NHTSA weeks ago, and was just warmed-over by WSJ. And why should Toyota plant a story of EDRs with Alzheimer’s, and then go on record today and say the opposite? Just-auto claimed that “Toyota in Tokyo could not be reached for comment.” Well, if you forget that Tokyo is 8 hours ahead of Bromsgrove, Worcs., no wonder nobody will pick up the phone. Friendly tip to Just-auto: When it’s noon in Bromsgrove, it’s 8 in the evening in Toyko, and even the worst workaholics are on their way home or in a Ginza bar.
This turns into a C-movie, a really bad one. Secretaries usually don’t comment about Data Recorders. A government agency usually doesn’t accuse a company of planting a story. Wall Street Journal reporters usually call the other side for confirmation. People usually look at their watch when calling other continents. Someone is desperately trying to keep a story alive that had been dead at the get-go. May we ask that this is done with a bit more finesse?