By on July 16, 2010

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?

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30 Comments on “Confirmed: WSJ Writes Nonsense About Toyota EDR Amnesia. Jalopnik In Same League As WSJ...”


  • avatar
    bevo

    I would go with lazy journalism by the WSJ. Where was the editor on the story? Where was the copy editor? Those positions should have prevented this mistake.

  • avatar
    Michal

    One would think the journalist responsible would use a little common sense. Most cars built in the last decade have electronic odometers. If the journalist believed wiping the EDR is as easy as disconnecting the battery, then surely doing the same wipes the odometer back to zero? Hey presto, brand new car!

    Engineers are a little smarter than journalists give them credit for and have thought about simple failure modes. I think it’s a little too obvious that serious accidents might just crush or disconnect that heavy block of lead and acid under the hood.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Engineers are a little smarter than journalists give them credit for

      It’s more like journalists don’t like complex explanations because the don’t read well, but simple heresay is easy. In this case, it sounds so plausible it must be true!

      Global warming is a great example of this: it’s actually quite nuanced and you need to be either a climatologist or statistician to understand the hows and why. Journalists don’t like dealing with things like “normalization” because it won’t fit in a four-inch column or a thirty-second piece, so when they here that data is discarded they go into bulldog mode because in-depth analysis isn’t feasible.

      To be fair, journalism isn’t easy, either (lord knows, there are a lot of engineers who couldn’t do it). The problem is that the two disciplines are very, very different, and the kind of people who operate in them think and deal with the world in different and incompatible ways.

  • avatar
    albatrosnh

    So the #1 Toyota Fanboy site has hotline to Toyota? Shocking!

    • 0 avatar

      It may come as a shock to you that most carmakers have a public relations department. You call and get an answer. If you bother to call …

      (You overlooked an even juicier bit: The author is married to a Japanese …)

    • 0 avatar
      Brian E

      This is a Toyota fansite? Wow, thanks for the news. I loathe Toyotas (the cars, not the company or the people who make them – well, maybe I loathe the people who are in charge of removing anything resembling driver involvement or feedback from the cars too). I guess I need to find someplace else to get my industry news then.

    • 0 avatar

      You seem to be up on the pro Toyota news websites – could you list a few others for me please? I like a balance to my news and all the other sites seem to be pro domestic and decidely xenophobic. Just list the independent ones please – no company ones or forums.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      “Toyota fanboy site”?

      Wow, did you even bother to follow TTAC’s Toyota recall coverage? Even before it hit the fan. In fact, this article calls into question both the WSJ and Just Auto/Jalopnik, its hardly pro-Toyota being that they call into question the best news Toyota has had in awhile. There is some actual fact-checking instead taking place rather then reporting everything in a one-dimensional manner.

      The great hypocrisy is that anything without the whiff of bashing Toyota results in accusatory calls of bias and ‘fanboy’-ism by individuals with hyper-polarized views. Perhaps we should start discussing the general tabloid and pageview-centric nature of some of the other blogs like Autoblog and Jalopink?

      Honestly, while I don’t agree with TTAC many times, there is at least some level of intelligent discourse here where the contributors respond to comments and criticisms- responded to you didn’t he? There is always a variety of viewpoints always expressed in the comment section, unlike other automotive blogs where minority views are censored or downgraded, or where the comment section is filled with internet-memes and failed attempted witticisms.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Someone is desperately trying to keep a story alive that had been dead at the get-go

    I suspect what’s happening is someone is trying not to look like a patsy. The media made a lot of money on this story and the government got to look proactive and important.

    Again, I would suspect the media moreso than the NHTSA. Most of the outlets that bought this story hook, line and sinker are, at best, going to have to run mea culpae; at worst, they could be looking at defamation suits.

    Where was the editor on the story? Where was the copy editor?

    In the rush to a) make money and b) get stories out faster, quality control in the media has slipped. There’s fewer copy editors and fact-check work is thin on the ground, and rightly so, because shallow, sensationalist and first makes more money and intelligent, late and truthful.

    Big Media suffers from problems very similar, to, say, Daimler: an operational quality control cost problem, much more agile competitors and a changed marketplace.

  • avatar
    1996MEdition

    And one wonders why newspaper readership is on the decline…..

  • avatar
    Invisible

    It’s well known that many blogs out there are just copy and pasting all their articles from other blogs. Autolies is a prime example. Every article/thread is just a copy and paste from here, or Autoblog…..

    They do zero fact checking, they feed the rumormills….then retreat and hide when questioned or challenged.

  • avatar
    210delray

    As someone who works in the field, I know that it’s silly even on its face to assume EDRs lose their memory if the vehicle battery is disconnected or destroyed. In a frontal crash, the battery is one of the first components to be destroyed, as most are still mounted near the front of the car. What would be the purpose of having an EDR if it couldn’t be read after even a relatively minor frontal crash?

  • avatar
    Telegraph Road

    From a March 1 post at http://www.safetyresearch.net (Juanita Grossman’s story):

    …Toyota’s Technical Analyst Manager Robert Landis, who came all the way out to Evansville, Indiana from Toyota’s U.S. headquarter in Torrance, Calif., with his camera to determine what went wrong…[Landis] told the Grossmans’ attorney that all of the engine diagnostics would have been erased when the battery was disconnected, nor would the airbag sensor tell him anymore than the speed at the time of the crash. The summary noted: “Mr. Landis further indicated that there was no sensor that would have preserved information regarding the accelerator and brake positions at the time of impact.”

    • 0 avatar
      1996MEdition

      It depends if he was talking ECU or EDR. Typically, ECU’s will lose stored codes when the battery is disconnected. If he was talking about diagnostic codes, I would suspect he meant ECU codes.

      Pulling the fuse or disconnecting the battery is my favorite approach to resetting the CEL after I make a repair…..works every time.

    • 0 avatar

      You forgot to mention her age – over 70, that they found the gas pedal bent, and that they found the brakes to be in perfect working order. Small details I know. Also there was a NHTSA complaint over another old lady accelerating out of a pharmacy drive throw and after the accident used the emt personal to witness she also had her foot on the brake – I’ve witnessed first hand brake pedal misapplication – after the car stops moving and they regain their senses people will instinctively put their foot back on the brake in anticipation the car may move again. I wouldn’t be using Sean Kanes stories or website if I was you given his over reliance on NHTSA’s universally recognized faulty complaints database. It must be killing Kane that NHTSA shut off access to all the supporting documents.

    • 0 avatar
      Telegraph Road

      @carquestions: I don’t doubt this is a case of pedal misapplication. The point is Toyota’s Landis stating–correctly or incorrectly–that once the battery was disconnected no information regarding the accelerator and brake positions would be preserved.

    • 0 avatar

      To put it simply and accurately – you are qouting Mr. Landis, through the Grossman’s attorney’s summary, told to their son inlaw repeated in a story written by Mr. Kane. I don’t know about you but I like my information to come from a distance a little closer to the guy that actually said it.

    • 0 avatar

      Statement, made today at approximately 6pm Japan time by Paul Nolasco, Public Affairs Division, Toyota Motor Corporation, Tokyo: “Our EDRs are designed to retain their memory even after they are disconnected from an electric power source.”

      I trust that more than a story that went through four levels of he said, she said.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    The issue hasn’t affected Toyota sales.

    I think the mainstream public sees accelerating Toyotas as “someone else’s” problem (or even as joke fodder), and they just move along.

    Most people think the driver has some control over this situation, which is quite different from exploding Pintos.

    Engineers care about EDRs, journalists care about sensationalism, and the public cares about warranties and rebates.

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    More than anything it seems as if the WSJ editorial section spilt over into their news department.

  • avatar
    polska

    I remember reading that the other day and having a brief wtf moment when I came across that. But I didn’t look too deep into, more because even “reputable” papers always need to be read skeptically. If that doesn’t signal the death of traditional media, then what?

  • avatar
    tmkun

    I’m surprised you got a response when you called Toyota HQ in Tokyo. :) The new hq is in Nagoya. The old one is nearby in Toyota City. Both are quite a distance from Tokyo. However, you did get the PR guy right as I know Paul is one of them.

  • avatar
    Contrarian

    Reporeters and politicians generally screw up every technical issue they get near.

    The concept of an event recorder w/o stable memory is laughable to any automotive engineer. WSJ should stick with economic issues, and politicians should stick with raising taxes and destroying individual initiative – what they do best.

  • avatar

    Sounds like the WSJ is succombing to the Fox News standard of factual reporting.

  • avatar
    AaronH

    Jackassnik in same league as WSJ? Shocking!

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    On subjects about which I am knowledgeable, I find that journalists have a pretty poor record for accuracy. This makes me wonder how much I can trust them on subjects about which I know little.

    To be fair, journalists have an impossible job. To ensure accuracy, they must be experts on every subject they are assigned to write about. This isn’t humanly possible.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Common sense alone tells you that Toyota’s EDRs have non-volatile memory, but Toyota can program them as they please. That is until the U.S code for EDRs goes into effect at MY2013.
    So before we blow off what this DOT secretary said… Well first of all, what do you expect the Toyota spokesman to say? He has a reason to distort the truth(which generation of EDRs was he being questioned about? Specifically.) What about the secretary? What ‘dog’ does she have in this fight?
    There are too many inconsistencies to not explore this further. Like how do so many of Toyota’s EDRs experience memory failure when data is downloaded by court order.
    Was the ‘secretary’ blowing smoke… or was she smoking something? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire!

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Interestingly enough, some MY2010 Toyota and Lexus vehicles still only have EDRs that only record POST-crash EDR data. Yes this true and coming from ‘pressroom.toyota,com’. This is no joke, some EDRs only record data AFTER the crash. Why the hell didn’t Toyota just say so? Instead of just shrugging and saying (when ordered by the court or NHTSA) “Sorry” when some of the printout’s key columns were left blank.
    For the first time ever, starting with MY2011, ALL Toyotas and Lexus models will have both ‘pre’ and post-crash EDRs.


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