The Truth About Cars » DOT The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 27 Jul 2014 20:45:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » DOT Obama Nominates Anthony Foxx As Next DOT Head Wed, 01 May 2013 12:00:28 +0000

President Obama announced the nomination of Anthony Foxx, the current mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, as his choice to succeed Ray LaHood as the next head of the Department of Transportation.

While LaHood’s legacy will largely relate to distracted driving legislation and an increase in the CAFE standard, little is known about how Foxx will align himself and the DOT on auto related issues. So far, much of Foxx’s transportation related work involves infastructure, specifically mass transit projects for his home city.

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Piston Slap: Of HID-retrofit Hatred, Panther Love…PART II Wed, 11 Jan 2012 22:02:31 +0000

A TTAC lurker writes:

Sajeev, I’m local to Houston and greatly look forward to my daily lurk on TTAC. I just had to respond affirmatively to the latest piston slap about HID’s and Panthers.
I own 2 CV’s, an unmolested 2003 Sport:
…and a 2002 HPP with various mods/tune: you will note the projector headlights in the ’02. I couldn’t agree more with the comments about the cheap HID kits and resulting glare/distraction to other drivers. In my case I went the route of a complete E55 projector retrofit and new wiring harness for a proper and adjustable installation. I’ve included a complete DIY I had posted on under my now-sold PI moniker Blue95 for your reading pleasure! IMO the only way to install HID lighting. Has been installed for about 2 years, no operating issues at all and no problems with state inspection.

Sajeev answers:

First off: you are a hero for preserving a Panther (or any mildly historically relevant car, for that matter) and for doing a really impressive job in your HID conversion on Panther #2.  That said, it may not be to the letter of the law as your new headlight bucket hasn’t been approved by the DOT, but whatever. Best and Brightest, that’s for you to decide.

Second off: I think I saw your 2003 Sport at IKEA about 3 weeks ago, maybe on a Saturday.  You had me drooling as I walked in.  Thanks for that, it sure made the notion of buying press-board minimalist furniture far more enticing.

Third off: upgrading to projector style headlight assemblies makes the HID-hatred far less terrible.  Combine that with an OEM-style bulb rating (no blue/yellow/radioactive rated bulbs) and you are within spitting distance of what Dearborn put in that non-Panther thing they call a Taurus.  It was mentioned in the previous comments by “turbosaab” to the same effect: you will get away with a good projector assembly, conservative HIDs, and quality wiring and relays/ballasts.  I encourage everyone to read the PDF in your letter to see the extent of work necessary to do a “proper” HID retrofit on a car without projectors from the factory.

And lastly, have a look at another excellent post from the last Piston Slap that deserves the oxygen of publicity:

In our first installment, TTAC Commentator jco wrote:

There’s just no way you’ll get acceptable beam pattern and anything less than atrocious amounts of glare if you wire up an HID kit in halogen-designed open reflector housings….so the housing was designed to shape that type of light. And yes, I see junky HID kits in reflector housings all the time. it just looks cheap and wrong. there are usually huge hot spots at the top of the housing, specifically throwing glare at others. i don’t think there are any OEMs using HID in a non-projector housing.

I installed a well-made (it came with a wire harness with in-line fuses and directly plugged into my headlight harness. it takes the stress of the increased startup power away from the factory wiring) HID retro kit in my truck. But my truck already has projector housings for the low beams. though the lenses are not optimized for that type of bulb, they work about 90% as well a true OEM setup. and i spent time adjusting the level on the beams. i have driven another car in front of my truck at night and it’s not glare-y at all.

some people will take an open reflector housing, pull it apart, and install OEM projector components. if you’re skilled with a dremel tool you can probably do that in just about anything. it’s still gonna look weird in there, but you’ll have a better performing light setup. that’s beyond the level of most people who just buy a kit from ebay and plug it in.

In summation: you want aftermarket HIDs?  Get projector housings, make them if necessary. Order HID bulbs that are on par with the brightness of OEM applications.   Put it together with quality wiring and electrics. Aim them correctly.

Easy, right? 

Send your queries to . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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Piston Slap: Of HID-retrofit Hatred, Panther Love Wed, 11 Jan 2012 12:26:16 +0000


Robin writes:

So when I get my next big check I’m getting me a Panther. On this you can depend. You’ve talked me into it! But that’s not the point of my email. Rather, I’ve seen these HID light kits and wonder if it’s a lot of hype or if there is some veracity to the upgrade?

Sajeev answers:

Oh yes!  How lovely to hear you will be joining us enlightened American auto-connoisseurs in the Land of the Last Land Yacht: Panther Love…Son!

Like I mentioned in the last Piston Slap, HID retrofits are usually a terrible idea.  Aside from their durability and inherent poor value, they are not a “bright idea” (sorry) when performing a headlight retrofit/upgrade to your non-HID car. A few notable exceptions include me, when I upgraded my 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII’s headlights with the factory HID system used on certain 1996 models.  It was all factory parts, and worked great…until time and orphan parts reared their ugly heads.

Long story short, there is no real scientific benefit to HIDs if you don’t have a headlight assembly designed for the HID bulb.  And sometimes, depending on headlight lense design and bulb choice, it’s more of a detriment. And the only Panther that can safely run HIDs are 2003-2011 Town Cars with the (optional) factory-installed HID lenses. Everything else throws out a ton of glare and is dangerous for fellow motorists. And yourself, if you encounter a lot of reflective signs on the road or drive in thunderstorms at night in urban lighting conditions.

Plus, most of these aftermarket kits are quite unreliable: from the quality of wiring, durability of relays, and design of bulbs, calling these HID retrofit vendors “hit or miss” would be an understatement.

Plus again, many of these kits are downright illegal.  Even if they are DOT approved, are they legal for use in your state?  Better find out before you buy.

One last remark: the non-HID’s on my father’s 2006 Town Car are disturbingly close to the general lighting quality of the HID’s in my 1995 Mark VIII. Who says these Panthers are old school? Their lighting pods are pretty darn high-tech!

Send your queries to . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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Feds Predict The Future Of The Auto Industry, Foresee Chrysler Freefall, GM Stagnation Fri, 23 Dec 2011 01:32:57 +0000 Automaker 2008 model year 2025 model year % Change Aston Martin 1,370 1,182 -13% BMW 353,120 550,665 56% Chrysler-Fiat 1,659,950 768,241 -54% Daimler 287,330 441,786 54% Ferrari 1,450 7,658 428% Ford 1,770,893 2,224,586 26% Greely/Volvo 98,397 143,696 46% General Motors 3,095,188 3,197,943 3% Honda 1,511,779 1,898,018 26% Hyundai 391,027 845,386 116% Kia 281,452 460,436 64% Lotus 252 316 25% Mazda 302,546 368,172 22% Mitsubishi 100,729 109,692 9% Nissan 1,023,415 1,441,229 41% Porsche 37,706 51,915 38% Spyker/Saab 25,956 26,605 3% Subaru 198,581 331,692 67% Suzuki 114,658 124,528 9% Tata/Jaguar-Land Rover 65,180 122,223 88% Tesla 800 31,974 3897% Toyota 2,211,500 3,318,069 50% Volkswagen 318,482 784,447 146% TOTAL 13,851,761 17,250,459 25%

Reasonable minds can disagree about the wisdom of the auto bailout, but according to analysis by the EPA and Department of Transportation (based on data from the Department of Energy and auto forecasters CSM), the Government’s rescue of GM and Chrysler may not have been the best idea (at least from a market perspective). According to data buried in the EPA/DOT proposed rule for 2017-2025 fuel economy standards [PDF here], Fiat-Chrysler is predicted to be the sick man of the auto industry by 2025, losing over half of its 2008 sales volume, while GM is expected to improve by only 3%, the second-worst projected performance (after Aston-Martin). In terms of percentages, even lowly Suzuki and Mitsubishi are projected to grow faster than The Mighty General. Ouch.

On the other hand, the proposed rule notes that data will be finalized before the final rule comes out. Besides, the agencies appropriately admit (in as many words) that projecting auto sales so far into the future is one hell of a crapshoot. Still, with the obvious exception of “Saab-Spyker” and with some skepticism about the projection’s optimism about overall market growth aside, these are not the craziest guesses I could imagine. Who knows what the future holds, but it certainly is a bit troubling that the government’s own data suggests the two automakers it bailed out may well have some of the weaker performances of the next 14 years. At least the Treasury could have sold off their remaining GM stock before this report was released…

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Inspector General: NHTSA Needs To Rethink Defect Investigation Mon, 14 Nov 2011 17:49:00 +0000

Remember the uproar over Unintended Acceleration in Toyotas? After more than a year of investigation, NHTSA has yet to find a definitive cause for the furor… although the experience was not an entire waste. In fact, the most interesting result of the entire situation was that it cast light on NHTSA’s inefficacy as much as it did embarrass Toyota’s quality control. And to help clarify what exactly the lessons of the Toyota flap were, the DOT’s Inspector General has released a report detailing its criticisms of the federal safety regulators. According to the report [PDF], NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) has not

  • Adequately tracked or documented pre-investigation activities.
  • Established a systematic process for determining when to involve third-party or Vehicle Research and Test Center (VRTC) assistance
  • Followed timeliness goals for completing investigations or fully implemented its redaction policy to ensure consumers’ privacy. [Ed: gee, you think?]
  • Established a complete and transparent record system with documented support for decisions that significantly affect its investigations.
  • Developed a formal training program to ensure staff has the necessary skills and expertise.

In his response, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland largely concurred with the audit’s findings, and is working with the ODI to improve investigation processes, transparency, privacy controls, staffing, training and more. In short, the government has reached the same conclusion that I reached on the day of the angst-filled Toyota testimony before congress, to wit:

Congress holds hearings like these to uncover shocking evidence and to impress its constituents with its dedication to their safety and well-being. Having been enticed into believing that sinister conspiracies exist in Toyota’s software code and the halls of the NHTSA, the House Energy Committee uncovered only one actionable solution to the ongoing scandal: [improving] NHTSA’s investigative capabilities. Put differently, after hours of posturing congress finally met the enemy and he was them.

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Enforcement Works In The War On Distraction… But Only To A Point Tue, 12 Jul 2011 17:08:09 +0000

Transportation Secretary and Supreme Allied Commander in the War On Distraction Ray LaHood is quite chuffed about initial pilot program results for his latest offensive against in-car cell phone use, and he’s taking to the airwaves to declare victory. The programs, modeled on the “Click It Or Ticket” and “Over The Limit, Under Arrest” initiatives combined an advertising blitz and waves of enforcement to crack down on the behavior, but more importantly to send the message that distracted driving is as serious a problem as drunk driving or not wearing a seatbelt. Thanks to the relative success of these earlier programs, the DOT has a strong template for its pilot anti-distracted driving campaign, the enforcement components of which took place in April, July, and October 2010 and March-April 2011. But was the “Phone In One Hand, Ticket In The Other” program actually as successful as LaHood claims?

Based on data from the report’s finding [PDF], it seems fairly clear that the program made some difference… but the contrast between the results in Hartford and the results in Syracuse are a little surprising. New York has had a ban on in-car hand-held cell phone use since 2001, and accordingly Syracuse’s initial numbers were relatively low compared to Hartford’s, where a “hands free” law has only been on the books since 2005. Unsurprisingly, Hartford saw the largest declines that can be attributed to the program, with observations of drivers holding phones to their ears dropping from 6.8% to 2.9%, nearly double the drop observed in Syracuse.

Another interesting result is the seemingly organic drops in in-car handheld cell phone use in the control groups, because here the dynamic reverses itself. New York, with its long-standing ban on handheld cell phone use saw stronger decreases in the control group than Conneticut with its more recent ban. As NHTSA’s report puts it

Generally there was a steady decline in the comparison sites, as well. This is a promising finding and suggests that social norms towards phone use and texting while driving may be shifting, becoming less acceptable behaviors to the public.

This is difficult to argue with, but in the context of evaluating the program’s effectiveness, it almost proves that the program was unnecessary. Connecticut’s more recent law meant there were more lower-hanging fruit for enforcement officers in Hartford, but their efforts made less of an impact in the control cities of Bridgeport/Stamford. Meanwhile, New York’s results were less dramatic in the targeted area (Syracuse) but the organic declines in Albany were stronger than any in Connecticut. The lesson? Media and enforcement blitzes do make a difference, but so does passing a law and simply waiting. The longer a law has been in place, the more diminished the returns will be in the targeted area… and the stronger the declines will be in non-targeted areas.

Weigh these results against the not-inconsiderable costs of the program (anyone know what police make per hour on average?) and the results of the program are a little less overwhelmingly impactful than LaHood makes them out to be. Like any other change in social norms, the key ingredient seems to be not advertising dollars nor cops on the beat, but simply time. The longer a law is on the books, the more it seems to be respected… and at a certain point, more advertising and enforcement seem to deliver diminishing returns. On the other hand, the program does seem to be effective at accelerating declines in observed handheld cell phone use… and given the human cost of distracted driving, it does feel a bit churlish to get too worked up about half a million taxpayer dollars (not counting the opportunity cost of dedicated law enforcement hours). So yes, the program was a success (certainly compared to LaHood’s annual hand-wringing “summits” on distracted driving)… but let’s not pretend that anything will be more effective at changing behavior than laws and the progress of time.

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Welcome To America Sat, 30 Apr 2011 00:33:08 +0000

The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) today released A Decade of Decline in Person Crossings From Mexico and Canada into the United States, a review of the 10-year decline in border crossings by. “This report examines the trends in person crossings by mode rather than reasons for the decline,” says a DOT press release. In the quest for reasons, Ed and I road-tested the entry from Canada last night. We might have found an answer for the decline:

The Windsor Ballet wasn‘t at peak performance last night, so we bid Canada a quick au revoir and inserted our car into the tunnel to the Home of The Free. The border guard at the U.S. side subjected us to intense questioning, including whether we ever had been arrested or “in trouble.” I bit my tongue and swallowed the “not until now”. We then were asked various times how much cash we had. Ed’s answer of “20 bucks” was accepted at face value. I had to count the bills in my wallet. All this cooperation did not help. The guard slapped a sticker on our windshield and ordered us to move to “secondary inspection.”

On arrival at secondary, we were told to “open all windows, turn off the engine, pop the trunk and the hood, put all your cell phones on the dashboard and exit the vehicle.” Which we did.

We went inside. Barely in, another guard barked at me: “Take your hands out of your pockets.” This admonition made me feel young again. I had not heard it since I was in school, some time in the last millennium.

A motherly border guard subjected us to the same questioning. The object seemed to be to run down the clock until someone outside had searched the car and possibly the cell phones on the dashboard. When all the questions were exhausted, the border guard turned into an extension of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Had we been at the Ford Museum already? I promised I would be. “Too bad you can’t stay until July 4th, we will have a great Revolutionary War reenactment.” I expressed my sadness that I could not attend.

Finally, car and possibly cell phones had been searched and we were good to go. Time elapsed: About an hour.

No wonder cross-border traffic is down.

On Sunday, I’ll be on the flight to the police state of China. Immigration procedures as follows: Ni hao. Show passport. Border guard compares picture with face. Border guard checks visa. Wham, a red stamp in passport. Xie xie. 5 little buttons ranging from sad face to broad smiley invite me to rate the service received. Guard gets a big smiley. Time elapsed: 2 minutes.


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ZoneAlarm Accuses U.S. DOT Of Fraud Thu, 07 Apr 2011 14:12:30 +0000

Members of the media and the legal profession who receive regular updates from the U.S. Department of Transportation were in for a shock this morning as they opened the last announcement from NHTSA. ZoneAlarm by Check Point Software, which claims market leadership in the firewall and security business, warns that a DOT press release is a “possible fraud attempt.”

This could discourage many recipients from learning that the 30-second PSA , “Get the Message,” which “features clips from people from across the country who lost loved ones in distracted driving crashes” has received more than 100,000 views on YouTube.

Apparently, the warning is triggered by a little government snooping on who may or may not click on the YouTube link in the press release. Instead on linking directly to the YouTube tearjerker – like so –  the press release routes the clicks through, along with a whale of a  tracking ID.

Once has done whatever it does with the information, it passes the viewer on to the heart-wrenching video of innocent children that were killed by text messages.

ZoneAlarm doesn’t like the sleight of hand and accuses of impersonating YouTube. Or

Ah, the dangers of distracted (or overly nosy) press releases.

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Recallpolitik Thu, 10 Feb 2011 11:39:00 +0000

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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NHTSA To Customers: Fix It Yourself Sun, 04 Jul 2010 07:49:05 +0000

In what amounts to a landmark policy shift, NHTSA now recommends that customers take quality problems in their own hands, and perform recalls themselves. Take NHTSA Campaign ID number 10V305000.




What ever happened to “Stop driving it, take it to your dealer?” Now, customers have to do it themselves, or charge? Whom? How much? With what? With a pitchfork? With manslaughter? (Just in case NHTSA gets around to fixing it themselves, here’s a  screenshot.)

PS: TTAC reiterates its policy of  not reporting each and every recall. Too many reports have been added to the NHTSA database. Our system can’t handle that kind of a workload. Apparently, we are not alone.

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NHTSA Recalls Recall Database Fri, 25 Jun 2010 05:24:31 +0000

If checking whether your car has been recalled is part of your morning routine and civic duty, then you were greeted by the above message this morning. Defects appear to be contagious. The insidious part: The NHTSA recall database appears to be operational. You are left clueless about what is and what isn’t working. Troubles without a fix? Ghost in a machine? Is the database safe for us to use?

This outage of unknown reason and proportions comes on the heels of NHTSA locking down major parts of the database, after it was revealed that the database was leaking private  information. The database is a valuable tool for keeping customers informed about recalls. It also acts as an information conduit for customers to express their concerns to the NHTSA and manufacturers.  However, the database has a recent history of abuse for political and propaganda purposes.

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The Shakedown Continues: Toyota Could Cough Up Another $16.4 mil Over 6 Year Old Truck Tue, 11 May 2010 06:36:17 +0000

Talk about timing: While Trans Sec LaHood was in Japan yesterday, ostensibly to look a trainsets, while he toured Toyota instead and uttered dark “time will tell” threats, while he said that his people are still working on the evidence for a second $16.4m federal fine, back in Washington, the timer was set for yet another ticking 16.4 mega-tonne bomb.

The DOT said Monday it will launch an investigation into whether Toyota Motor Corp. waited too long before recalling its T100 pickup truck in the U.S. , reports The Nikkei [sub]. The 6 year old case could cost Toyota the third $16.4m fine. Soon, we’ll be talking about real money.

The allegations: In 2004, Toyota recalled the truck, known as Hilux Surf, in Japan. Steering rods were subject to fatigue, cracks and breaks. In the U.S., the truck wasn’t recalled. Toyota said it was an issue isolated to trucks sold in Japan. A year later, the truck was recalled in the U.S.

Now, NHTSA said Monday that Toyota may have received similar complaints about the T100 truck from U.S. customers in 2004.

Under the TREAD act, NHTSA must be informed about defects within five business days after learning about them. Says The Nikkei: “If the latest probe determines Toyota broke this rule in 2004, the Japanese automaker is likely to be penalized with a new fine.”

It is unclear whether the third fine was mentioned yesterday during the meeting. The second was. Apart from that, LaHood said he and Akio Toyoda had a “candid, frank and serious discussion.” Which is diplomatic double-speak for yelling at each other.

When the U.S. threatened new sanctions against North Korea back in 2003, the talks were “positive, frank and candid.” That was one step below “candid, frank and serious.”

Toyota was the first manufacturer to be hit with the maximum penalty. Assuming non-discriminatorial treatment, other auto maker better start building reserves in case the serial fines set a precedent.

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LaHood Inspects Toyota, Remains Skeptic Mon, 10 May 2010 10:43:28 +0000

U.S. Transport Secretary Ray LaHood is in Japan today. He’s looking at trainsets. Japan is bidding on the U.S.A.’s (long in the) future high speed rail network. So is everybody else in the world, including the Chinese. Good luck to both of them. While in Japan, LaHood personally inspected Toyota’s safety facilities in Toyota City to see whether they are up to snuff. You think Mr. “Feet to the Fire” LaHood gave Toyota a clean bill of health? Think again.

According to LaHood, “time will tell.”

“I believe that they have put in place some measures that will enable us at the Department of Transportation to have a better handle and a better form of information if they’re carried out,” LaHood told a news conference in Toyota. “And what I told Mr. Toyoda today, these measures are important measures but I use the American colloquialism: the proof is in the pudding.”

If that sounds a bit ambivalent, or downright dismissive to you, then you are not alone. Quite possibly, the frightened Japanese already convened a conference of their pastry chefs.

Last month, Toyota agreed to pay a record $16.4 million federal fine as penance for delaying a safety recall over defective accelerator pedals. Currently, U.S. regulators are sifting through 500,000 documents to see whether they can assess a second fine, based on the theory that there were two separate defects in the pedals.

LaHood says the research is still ongoing, and that it “will be a while.” The government needs the money. One fine barely pays for a mile of high speed rail.

Honda and Nissan will be next on LaHood’s visiting schedule, says Reuters.

Mr. Secretary: The trains are built by Hitachi and Kawasaki Heavy.

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Ka-Ching: Toyota Hands Dough To DOT Mon, 19 Apr 2010 15:42:48 +0000

Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to pay a $16.4 million civil fine levied by the U.S. government, reports The Nikkei [sub]. They will not admit any wrongdoing and can claim that they never admitted to knowingly hiding defects from regulators, said a senior U.S. Transportation Department official. On Friday, it wasn’t clear whether the DOT would accept the dough with a deal attached.

The agreement should be papered as you read this, early Monday, and Toyota will have 30 days to fork over the funds.

Although there will be no admission of guilt, the DOT has no doubts about the whodunit: According to the Nikkei, the DOT still maintains that the auto maker knowingly hid a “sticky pedal” defect in certain models for at least four months, before agreeing to a recall earlier this year.”

“By paying the full civil penalty, Toyota is accepting responsibility for hiding this safety defect from NHTSA in violation of the law,” a senior DOT official said. Ah, the fine nuances of the law.

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Begun, The Bike-Car Wars Have Fri, 19 Mar 2010 21:44:05 +0000

The DOT policy is to incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into transportation projects. Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems. Because of the numerous individual and community benefits that walking and bicycling provide — including health, safety, environmental, transportation, and quality of life — transportation agencies are encouraged to go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes.

Having spent most of his tenure chiding distracted drivers and hunting down demon-possessed Toyotas, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appears to be over the whole car thing. The policy statement above was just one element of his push to put bicycling and other car alternatives on an equal footing to cars in transportation planning, which he recently announced at the National Bike Summit.

The main points of LaHood’s pro-bike policy shift are explained in his “Recommended Actions”:

The DOT encourages States, local governments, professional associations, community organizations, public transportation agencies, and other government agencies, to adopt similar policy statements on bicycle and pedestrian accommodation as an indication of their commitment to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians as an integral element of the transportation system. In support of this commitment, transportation agencies and local communities should go beyond minimum design standards and requirements to create safe, attractive, sustainable, accessible, and convenient bicycling and walking networks. Such actions should include:

  • Considering walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes: The primary goal of a transportation system is to safely and efficiently move people and goods. Walking and bicycling are efficient transportation modes for most short trips and, where convenient intermodal systems exist, these nonmotorized trips can easily be linked with transit to significantly increase trip distance. Because of the benefits they provide, transportation agencies should give the same priority to walking and bicycling as is given to other transportation modes. Walking and bicycling should not be an afterthought in roadway design.
  • Ensuring that there are transportation choices for people of all ages and abilities, especially children: Pedestrian and bicycle facilities should meet accessibility requirements and provide safe, convenient, and interconnected transportation networks. For example, children should have safe and convenient options for walking or bicycling to school and parks. People who cannot or prefer not to drive should have safe and efficient transportation choices.
  • Going beyond minimum design standards: Transportation agencies are encouraged, when possible, to avoid designing walking and bicycling facilities to the minimum standards. For example, shared-use paths that have been designed to minimum width requirements will need retrofits as more people use them. It is more effective to plan for increased usage than to retrofit an older facility. Planning projects for the long-term should anticipate likely future demand for bicycling and walking facilities and not preclude the provision of future improvements.
  • Integrating bicycle and pedestrian accommodation on new, rehabilitated, and limited-access bridges: DOT encourages bicycle and pedestrian accommodation on bridge projects including facilities on limited-access bridges with connections to streets or paths.
  • Collecting data on walking and biking trips: The best way to improve transportation networks for any mode is to collect and analyze trip data to optimize investments. Walking and bicycling trip data for many communities are lacking. This data gap can be overcome by establishing routine collection of nonmotorized trip information. Communities that routinely collect walking and bicycling data are able to track trends and prioritize investments to ensure the success of new facilities. These data are also valuable in linking walking and bicycling with transit.
  • Setting mode share targets for walking and bicycling and tracking them over time: A byproduct of improved data collection is that communities can establish targets for increasing the percentage of trips made by walking and bicycling.
  • Removing snow from sidewalks and shared-use paths: Current maintenance provisions require pedestrian facilities built with Federal funds to be maintained in the same manner as other roadway assets. State Agencies have generally established levels of service on various routes especially as related to snow and ice events.
  • Improving nonmotorized facilities during maintenance projects: Many transportation agencies spend most of their transportation funding on maintenance rather than on constructing new facilities. Transportation agencies should find ways to make facility improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists during resurfacing and other maintenance projects.
  • As the authors of Carjacked, and others (especially here in bike-obsessed Portland) are quick to point out, America’s transportation policy has existed solely to serve cars since time immemorial. Including provisions for non-car transportation shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of cars and road infrastructure. Especially considering how relatively few opportunities there are to replace regular car use with bicycles or the bus. Besides, LaHood can only veto major, federally-funded infrastructure programs if they fail to include provisions for cyclists and non-car transportation.

    Like so much that LaHood has done since taking office, this statement was highly symbolic and of little real consequence. But while LaHood grandstands, a larger problem looms: the president just signed legislation that will spend $19.5b to keep the federal highway trust fund solvent until 2011, at which point more tough choices will have to be made. Given LaHood’s publicly-stated preference for a vehicle-tracking, pay-per-mile taxation regime to rebuild the highway trust fund, some might see his wooing of anti-car (or, at least pro-bike) forces in a more sinister light. LaHood has made no secret of his desire to “wean America off the automobile,” and and between pay-per-mile and the British government’s bag of anti-car tricks and taxes, he’s got a lot of options. But with the 2012 election picture looking far from perfect, LaHood will probably have to forgo any big political risks for more symbolic pronouncements like this one. Car fans can breath easy for a little while longer.

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    The Toyota Testimony, Day One: A Comedy In Three Parts: Part Three: The Inevitable Punchline Wed, 24 Feb 2010 19:28:55 +0000

    After a big buildup by expert witnesses, and Toyota’s Jim Lentz’s evasion of any evidence that his firm’s cars are afflicted with an untraceable electronic gremlin, the House Energy Committe turned its attention to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Because LaHood’s department falls under the congress’s oversight (and carries the government’s ultimate responsibility for the safety of American motorists), LaHood might well have been the main focus of the committee’s investigation. And indeed his last-in-line billing appears to make him the event’s headliner. Or at least it would have if his testimony didn’t make the previous several hours of Ahab-ing largely unnecessary, and possibly even highly embarrassing.

    Because committee members had to vote on the house floor, yesterday’s evening session was divided into two parts, the first of which saw LaHood deliver his eight-page prepared statement and the second of which was devoted to questions and (to a lesser extent) answers. The contrast between the two was marked.

    LaHood’s prepared statement is a workmanlike document, which describes the NHTSA’s actions in relation to Toyota’s unintended acceleration scandal without resorting to the scaremongering of the previous two sessions. Contrary to reports from State Farm Insurance, which claims it warned the NHTSA of Toyota’s troubling UA statistics as early as 2004, LaHood’s testimony makes it clear that it opened its first investigation in March of 2007. That investigation led to Toyota’s recall of floormats in September 2007, and when another accident took place, it urged Toyota to once again contact consumers about the recall, which it did. When the NHTSA found that certain Toyota pedal designs might be prone to entrapment, it urged Toyota to perform another recall, which it did in October 2009.

    Though LaHood said the NHTSA was investigating Toyota’s timeliness in announcing its recalls (results pending), he indicated that Toyota had largely complied with his agency’s requests:

    Even after the NHTSA Administrator issues an order directing a recall, the manufacturer can avoid doing the recall until NHTSA proves its case in court. In such a case, the agency has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a vehicle defect exists and that it creates an unreasonable risk to safety. As a result, recalls occur most quickly when a manufacturer announces the recall without waiting for NHTSA to open and complete an investigation. That is what happened here — because of the pressure NHTSA applied.

    In short, while Lentz was able to evade the committee’s main goal (evidence of mysterious electronic defects), LaHood actually helped mitigate the committee’s secondary concerns, namely that Toyota dragged its heels on recalls to the point of criminality. In the matter of the CTS pedal stickiness, LaHood once again confirmed that Toyota had been able to self-report and announce a recall before an NHTSA investigation had been launched (although a separate timeliness inquiry has been launched into this issue as well).

    But LaHood’s exoneration of Toyota wasn’t left there. In the section of his testimony labeled “other instances of unintended or excessive acceleration,” LaHood notes:

    The information NHTSA has received from consumers concerning unintended or excessive acceleration in vehicles can be divided into general categories that include: engine surging that lasts only a second or two; unintended acceleration from a stopped position or very low speed that results in quick movement over a short distance and sometimes results in crashing into an object; and events that begin at high speeds because the driver intended to accelerate quickly and continue for a sustained period of many minutes beyond what the driver intended. The possible causes of these events that NHTSA has been able to identify include mechanical problems with the accelerator; obstruction of the accelerator by another object; or human error (pressing the pedal)… for the high-speed events that last for many seconds or minutes, the only cause NHTSA has been able to establish thus far is entrapment of the pedal by a floor mat. The only exception to this has [sic] may have been a recent event in New Jersey that apparently did not involve floor mat entrapment but apparently did involve a stuck CTS pedal… with one exception, NHTSA has not been able to establish a vehicle-based cause for unintended acceleration events in Toyota vehicles not covered by those two recalls. The exception was a recall of model year 2004 Sienna vans in 2009 due to a defective trim problem that could, if loosened during servicing, entrap the accelerator at full throttle

    With these issues established, LaHood had essentially let Toyota off the hook… at least until the ongoing investigation into “all possible defects in [Toyotas] vehicles that may be causing unintended acceleration” concludes. LaHood’s only mistake in clearing the record on Toyota’s behavior: it left him and his agency dangling alone on the committee’s hook.

    Inevitably then, LaHood was asked if he and his agency bore some responsibility for the current scandal. His response showed that he hadn’t lost any of the experience he gained while serving on the other side of congressional inquiries [LaHood served as a representative of Illinois from 1994 until 2008]. From folksy cliches (“we will get into the weeds on electronics”) to use of the third person (“no one has talked more about safety in Washington DC than Ray LaHood”) to irrelevant examples of his commitment to the concept of safety (“we held a summit on distracted driving”), LaHood fought political posturing with political posturing. And because congress is ultimately responsible for NHTSA’s funding and oversight, he largely got away with it [with one major exception to be explored in a forthcoming post].

    In addition to more general grandstanding, there are three legs to the bureaucrat’s stool: blaming predecessors, not being able to comment on ongoing investigations, and blaming a lack of funding. Unsurprisingly, LaHood brought each of these canards to bear on his questioners. LaHood admitted that the agency had come up short in the past (an admission based on the possibility that an undiscovered e-gremlin is still lurking in the background), and held up President Obama’s decision to add 66 new investigator positions to NHTSA and the possibility of further funding increases as a solution to future embarrassment.

    As the questioning pounded away, LaHood retreated further and further into these self-protection measures. Though a note of shrill defensiveness crept into his voice, his positions didn’t change and other than an single, ominously dangling sentence (“I’m not going to trash Toyota’s North American leadership”) he didn’t indicate any damning malfeasance on Toyota’s part. After weeks of media speculation, and three witnesses worth of fearmongering, visions of damning evidence of Toyota malfeasance or NHTSA complicity in a coverup were all but buried by the time the questions ended. And in the grand tradition of theatrical farce, the hunter ended up hunting himself.

    Congress holds hearings like these to uncover shocking evidence and to impress its constituents with its dedication to their safety and well-being. Having been enticed into believing that sinister conspiracies exist in Toyota’s software code and the halls of the NHTSA, the House Energy Committee uncovered only one actionable solution to the ongoing scandal: greater funding for NHTSA’s investigative capabilities. Put differently, after hours of posturing congress finally met the enemy and he was them.

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    Virginia DOT Defends Red Light Camera Study Mon, 04 Jan 2010 17:58:49 +0000 (

    In 2007, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) performed one of the most comprehensive statewide surveys of the impact of red light cameras on safety (view report). It caused quite a stir upon its release. The study took advantage of seven years’ worth of data both before and after cameras were installed, examining a far more extensive dataset than most competing studies.

    Despite the agency’s best effort to present automated enforcement in a positive light, the unavoidable results were that, on a statewide level, accidents and injuries increased where cameras were used. This outcome has proved to be an embarrassment for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) which has been the primary organization generating research claiming that red light cameras improve safety. IIHS noted that VDOT essentially bent over backwards to accommodate the industry, but because the ultimate results were unfavorable, the VDOT report should be discarded.

    “That the final conclusions of the [VDOT] study are guarded and more conservative than the results might suggest supports our belief that the negative results of the study cannot, and should not be cited and used as a deterrent to the implementation of red light camera programs,” a draft 2007 IIHS critique stated.

    Essentially, IIHS argued that one should question the VDOT/Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC) study because the results conflicted with conclusions generated by IIHS itself.

    “A large body of peer-reviewed research generally has found that camera enforcement reduces red light violations and injury crashes,” the final IIHS critique stated. “Results of a new study commissioned by the Virginia Transportation Research Council and completed in June 2007 appear to contradict these earlier findings, but there are significant methodological issues with the VTRC study that call into question the validity of its conclusions.”

    The insurance industry’s financial interest in the issue of photo enforcement amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. States like Arizona, California and Illinois impose license points on certain types of red light camera and speed camera tickets. That means for each photo ticket issued, the insurance companies have the legal right impose an annual monetary surcharge on the recipient of as little as $25 to as much as $1000 extra per year.

    The draft insurance industry critique argued that VDOT’s model “underestimated” the benefits of red light cameras by using an improper statistical model influenced by the enforcement location selection process. IIHS chose two intersections and re-analyzed the data to illustrate the industry’s suspicion that VDOT’s methodology produced unfair results. VDOT countered this by doing a full-blown reanalysis following every IIHS recommendation.

    “While findings regarding rear-end crashes and angle crashes did not change substantially, Table R1 below suggests that the approaches suggested by the reviewers would have caused red light running crashes to increase slightly,” VDOT explained in its response to IIHS.

    Specifically, instead of a 42 percent increase in rear-end collisions, the cameras would be associated with a 48 percent increase in accidents. Angle collisions would increase 30 percent instead of 20 percent and “red light running” accidents would increase 15 percent.

    In the final, published version of its paper, IIHS dropped the concrete analysis of VDOT’s equation but retained the vague criticisms about how the “highly unusual crash prediction model” was “unreliable.” In a November 2008 email, VDOT Associate Principal Research Scientist John Miller said that he intended to ask IIHS to include VDOT’s response on its website.

    As of January 2010, IIHS had not done so. VDOT posted all of the raw data for its report online, inviting independent analysis and critique as the agency finalized its work. IIHS does not provide any raw data on its website that would allow independent verification of the industry’s claims.

    View the full VDOT/VTRC point-by-point response in a 170k PDF file at the source link below. The draft of the IIHS report is provided with VDOT’s comments (“authors’ response”) given in gray shaded boxes.

    Source: PDF File Peer Review of 2007 VTRC Study and Author Response (IIHS / Virginia Transportation Research Council, 11/1/2007)

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