By on February 10, 2011

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano today took the unusual step of publicly voicing the Japanese government’s satisfaction with the U.S. government’s findings that Toyota’s electronic throttle control system is free of glitches, ghosts and malfunctions. It was a not so subtle reminder that politics weighed heavily in Toyota’s SUA scandal.

On Tuesday, a study by NASA, commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had exonerated the Toyota ECU that had been fingered by the media and politicians as the source of all SUA evil.

”It is extremely good that it was made clear that Toyota’s system is not the reason (behind the acceleration cases),” Edano told a news conference, witnessed by The Nikkei.

It is widely believed on both sides of the Pacific that Toyota was made an example of in order to demonstrate to a Japanese administration unpopular with the American in particular, and to the world in general, what can happen to a nice company if a country doesn’t play ball according to American rules.

It came as no surprise that the public hounding of Toyota was ratcheted down immediately after Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June 2010. He had been elected on a platform of removing U.S. Marine air units off the strategically important Okinawa islands.

What happened shortly after the congressional tribunals in Washington? In May last year, Hatoyama announced that ridding Okinawa of U.S. troops might not be possible. To make sure that he did not forget, LaHood visited Japan 4 days later and made hints of further fines against Toyota (which came.)

Hatoyama had to go, and that’s what he did.

What a sudden change!

Two weeks after Hatoyama had resigned on June 2, 2010, the NHTSA recalled large parts of the recall database which had been used as a virtual killing field before. A few weeks later, the NHTSA changed its position and started to mention possible driver error.

Soon, a supposedly suppressed report by the NHTSA that named driver error as the cause was leaked. In October, NHTSA Chief David Strickland suddenly praised Toyota, extolled a “change in how Toyota approaches defects” and said that “Toyota really is taking safety much more seriously than they did before I took office.”

Things became quiet around Toyota, LaHood picked another enemy: Text messages.

Tuesday’s NASA findings are nothing else than the final act of a drama that had long ended.

It’s the administration’s peace with honor with Japan.

The troops are still in Okinawa. The auto industry is humming again. A whitewashed and prettied-up GM has been successfully floated at the stock exchange. Toyota had to sacrifice market share in the U.S. GM is selling cars again and has come within spitting distance of Toyota in the World Championship of Automobile Production. All signs point to GM becoming the world leader again this year.

Mission accomplished.

Before you start typing snide remarks, read this:

For more than 25 years, I was married into a high powered Washington military family. My former father in law was top brass. He taught me three things: Don’t believe in wide conspiracies. Don’t believe in coincidences. Battles are won by exploiting the weakness of the enemy.

The administration did not make up the SUA reports. The CIA did not sabotage a Lexus to send Mark Saylor and three of his family to their death.  Brian Ross is not on the payroll of the UAW. This is not a Clancy novel.

In this game, you don’t make things up. (Not unless you are really hard pressed and you absolutely must invade Iraq.)

Politics is the art of spin. You wait for something to happen.

If politically expedient, you ignore it. Such as the countless SUA cases that had been filed over the years, involving just about any brand’s car.

If it fits your plans, you take the event, you blow it out of proportion, you put a drop of blood in the water and let the sharks do the dirty work for you. If it gets out of hand, you can always blame the sharks.

William Safire once said: ”Spin is what a pitcher does when he throws a curveball. The English on the ball causes it to appear to be going in a slightly different direction than it actually is.” I know a little about spin. In more than 35 years of producing propaganda for the world’s third largest automaker, I spun my fair share of industrial strength yarn.

Timing is an important part of spin. When the Toyota Unintended Acceleration Scandal of 2010 unfolded into a full scale frenzy, America, and especially the American car industry was deeply humiliated. Two of the Detroit 3 had declared bankruptcy. One was hanging on for dear life. The government found itself in the car business, and business was bad. U.S. car sales were at their lowest level in 27 years. For the first time since anyone could remember, the U.S. had to give up the title largest car market to someone else. To add insult to industry, that someone was China, a country we thought held the world record in bicycles. Jobs were lost. Houses were foreclosed.

What do you do in such a situation? You use a tool that had proven its usefulness over thousands of years: The enemy abroad.

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17 Comments on “Recallpolitik...”

  • avatar

    “Politics is the art of spin. You wait for something to happen.
    If politically expedient, you ignore it. Such as the countless SUA cases that had been filed over the years, involving just about any brand’s car.
    If it fits your plans, you take the event, you blow it out of proportion, you put a drop of blood in the water and let the sharks do the dirty work for you. If it gets out of hand, you can always blame the sharks.”
    Excellent observations. Governments, political parties and so on will often keep potentially useful material in reserve in case it might prove useful at some future time. I see this all the time in the battles between political parties here in Canada.

    Spin is usually just a way of trying to maintain or seize an advantage, and while it is often draped in noble terms such as ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’, there is usually very little if anything that is noble about it.

    I also love the part about blaming the sharks. Very well done.

  • avatar

    Wait…this only happened in the US? Toyota had recalls all around the world due to their complacency.

    It was an election year, even if it was midterms.

    But throughh investigations we found out that NHTSA swamped employees, internal letter gloating about the money saved by avoiding recalls, and Toyota’s lack of information available to read their ECMs…

  • avatar

    “In this game, you don’t make things up.” What? Really? You mean to tell me that reptilian shape-shifters don’t exist? I’ll terminate immediately my subscription to “Conspiracy Planet”! I think most people saw this (UA) for what it was – driver error – and little else, maybe floormats in a case or two. It’s all a big chess game and posturing and since the U.S government now had/has “skin in the game” with the auto industry. They want their investment to succeed, so the right opportunity came along and they made the most of it, but as you said, in the end, Japan saved face, which is vitally important, and all players are happy. Kind of reminds me of a little league coach telling his 4-year-olds that it’s not that important to win, but to have fun. And the beat goes on…

  • avatar

    Good, tight analysis in this piece posted by Bertel. Great example of TTAC’s uniqueness and value covering the auto industry.

  • avatar

    Automakers are just now getting around to voluntarily installing brake-override hardware/software. NHTSA? Hello? Brake-overrides wouldn’t have helped the those that just stepped on the wrong pedal but look at all the other cases where the brakes got cooked or melted, regardless of whether it was a jammed/trapped/double stepped accelerator pedal. Automakers may only be guilty of oversight but where the F was NHTSA in all this?

    • 0 avatar
      Brian P

      NHTSA has dropped the ball in a number of areas:
      – Not requiring/regulating brake override systems
      – Not regulating alternative methods of starting and stopping the engine. The auto manufacturers have gotten the push-button engine stop/start systems wrong. Motorcycles and race cars have had it right for decades: it is pushbutton start, but there is either a redundant keyed switch that can be switched off or a big red “OFF” button or both, and it’s implemented in hard wiring, not in software.
      – Not requiring/regulating a method of shifting to “neutral” that is not reliant on software.
      – My own personal beef: Not requiring/regulating that if instrument backlighting is on, then the headlights and taillights have to be on. If the headlights and taillights are off, then all instrument lighting has to be off. Toyota is guilty here, too … almost every time I see a car driving around at night with only the DRL’s and no taillights, it is either Toyota, Lexus, Honda, Acura, Subaru, or Hyundai, all of which have at least some models with constant-on instrument backlighting.
      Of course, it is not politically expedient to lay any blame on NHTSA itself.

    • 0 avatar

      What’s the difference between the FAA & NHTSA? Aren’t redundant safety systems required for air travel. Yes, aviation crashes are more dramatic/devestating but who do we need to hire to protect us on the road? Wouldn’t the FAA be held accountable for air disasters based on non redundancy? Automaker’s focus is on profits, as it should be, right? Should they just police themselves?

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    The lowest engineer at Toyota has twice the IQ of the smartest “public servant” on that joke of a senate panel.  We must all keep in mind that one goes into politics when one surmises that there is nothing else that one can do.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t underestimate the intelligence of most politicians and high level public servants. They are often very good at what they do, as Bertel’s article indicates.

  • avatar
    Don C

    You’re attributing our government’s attitude to malice, when it can be easily explained as stupidity.

  • avatar

    Great piece, even better headline!

  • avatar

    Toyota had to sacrifice market share in the U.S.

    Objection!  Speculation by counsel!

    Are you implying that this debacle was wholly responsible for Toyota’s (small) loss of market share in the U.S.?  That it wasn’t because of competition from resurgent and emergent manufacturers?  It wasn’t because of many products, deep into cycle?  Or that it wasn’t because of the higher prices commanded by Toyota retailers in the maw of a deep recession?

    I present Exhibit A: Toyota also lost market share in Canada in 2010, without the litigious environment and other factors present in the United States.

    Your witness.

    • 0 avatar

      While I agree that it would be oversimplifying things to rule out the other factors you mention in explaining Toyota’s market slippage, nevertheless I think it would be safe to say that worries about brakes and so on reached Canadian ears as well, after all, almost all the television and so on that people pay attention to here is American, so we were bombarded by these reports just as often as you were.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Phil,

      I think you’re too late to file for intervenor status… :)

      I’m not trying to say that the SUA debacle didn’t affect Toyota sales in N. America, but merely tried to postulate more of a multi-faceted explanation.  I would highly resent the insinuation that Toyota’s sales figures were only supposed to go in one direction (up) in spite of all the reasons I have stated above.

    • 0 avatar

      Well put.

  • avatar

    If more people think for themselves instead of swallowing all that politically-motivated crap out there hook, line and sinker, they would evaluate and rate their prospective buys on its own merits. And so it is with cars.  If you’re happy with what you have been buying, you stick with it.  That’s called brand loyalty.  But, if like so many Americans, you are unhappy with what you bought in the past, then it is time to start shopping around and comparing to see where you get the biggest bang for your buck.  Politically motivated smear campaigns rarely work if you cut the chaff from the wheat.  And that is exactly what happened with the Toyota recalls.  This happened at a time when two of America’s finest car manufacturers went belly up and died, predominantly because of companies like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and the other transplants which clearly made superior products to those offered by the American car makers. So what better strategy than to discredit the competition, eh?  In the end, the people that believe in American cars will continue to buy American. The people who believe in Toyota and the transplants will continue to buy those.  It is up to each individual buyer to determine what works best for them.  The prudent thing to do is to shop around and compare what each product has to offer and what its past track record is. You buy what works the best for you and what gives you the most value for your money.  No one buys second-rate if there is better to be had for the same money. And clearly, Toyota had a huge win with this decision, political or not.

  • avatar

    Am I reading this right? There’s a link with Toyota’s mishandled SUA disaster, troops being on Okinawa and GM’s “successful” relisting?
    Maybe we need Wikileaks to confirm or the Lex Pasimoniae instead.

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