Toyota says that a group of trial lawyers that sue Toyota for money “manufacture controversy where none exists and use media outlets like CNN as tools to serve their narrow, self-interested agenda.” Toyota thinks that “CNN is party of and party to an attempt by lawyers suing Toyota for money to manufacture doubt about the safety of Toyota’s vehicles in the absence of any scientific evidence whatsoever.”
Toyota makes noises that it may sue CNN. What happened?
Yesterday evening, CNN aired a “Keeping Them Honest” segment with Anderson Cooper. That report made the infamous Brian Ross & David Gilbert experiment look like responsible journalism in comparison. The segment is about an internal Toyota memo. The memo is in Japanese, and the segment documents in excruciating length the problems of getting an exact translation from Japanese to English. In the first translation, an Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) system turned on during stress testing. In the second translation, “sudden unintended acceleration” occurred. In the third translation, the vehicle did “accelerate on its own.” For good measure, CNN uses both translations 2 and 3 in its report. TTAC’s in-house Japanese linguist, Frau Schmitto-san, gives version 1 the thumbs up.
Because discussions of nuances of the Japanese language in an internal memo from one Japanese software engineer to the other does not provide good video, CNN spiced up the program with Tanya Spotts. Last year, Ms. Spotts bought a Lexus ES 350. Seven months later, she drove it into a wall in a shopping mall. She swears she had been on the brakes at all times. The electronic data recorder says she was on the gas until 0.4 seconds before impact. On CNN, Scotts vows “I won’ t drive this car again.” She has not lost her confidence in Toyota: As she swears off the Lexus, CNN shows her carefully exiting her garage in a Toyota SUV (1:43 in this video.) In the end, Ms. Scott, who looks like a member of the pedal misapplication demographic, admits that she cannot prove SUA.
After eight excruciating minutes, the only accusation CNN can make halfway stick is that Toyota did not make this document available to NHTSA. Toyota did not, but it obviously made the memo available to the opposing lawyers. Nobody says outright where the memo came from. However, in a comment to the CNN story, Toyota says that the document was “produced in litigation,” hinting strongly that CNN received it from the other side.
CNN thinks that the document is the smoking gun. Toyota thinks the document is proof that the company is doing its job. The memo documents a stress test process. Not on production cars. On prototypes. The memo documents a condition where deliberately wrong signals would cause an adaptive cruise control in a prototype to release its brakes from a stopped condition, only to re-apply the brake after a few milliseconds and to set an error code. As a result of this testing, the system was changed. The system described in the memo never made it into production. Toyota spokesman John Hanson called the document “evidence of Toyota’s robust design process.”
What’s more, neither the Lexus model, nor the Adaptive Cruise Control were ever sold in the U.S. A.
To me, the only interesting takeaway is that Toyota no longer presents the other cheek when dealing with the media. Toyota was very subdued during the Brian Ross ABC carhacking story. Now, Toyota comes out swinging. It calls CNN’s report “misleading” and “inaccurate.” Toyta says CNN is “a patsy” and “journalistically irresponsible.” In a memo to CNN, Toyota “reserves the right to take any and every appropriate step to protect and defend the reputation of our company.”
Which in the business translates to “we may sue.”