The Truth About Cars » SUA The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +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 » SUA Lost In Translation: Toyota Threatens To Sue CNN Over Memogate Fri, 02 Mar 2012 13:40:33 +0000

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.”


]]> 34
Can’t Bring Me Down: Toyota Brand Unaffected By Recalls Wed, 15 Feb 2012 16:00:52 +0000

The massive wave of recalls that brought some 9 million Toyotas back to the dealers, amidst a frenzied coverage by a sometimes hysteric media, did less damage to the brand than imagined. A study from North Carolina State University shows that Toyota’s safety-related recalls that began in 2009 had little to no impact on how consumers perceived the brand.

Dr. Robert Hammond, assistant professor of economics at NC State, launched the study because he wanted to see how consumers respond to recalls. Hammond looked at used-car markets as a measure of how much Toyota owners were willing to accept when selling their vehicles – and how much used-car buyers were willing to pay for them.

Hammond found that there was very little effect on what consumers were willing to pay for a Toyota. Hammond found that the average price of affected vehicles declined by approximately 2 percent relative to comparable, unaffected vehicles (such as similar Honda models). That 2 percent decline is within the statistical margin-of-error for the study. What’s more, the effect was temporary: The first Toyota recall was in November 2009, and the apparent decline in vehicle price had leveled out by January 2010.

Initial reports of drops in resale value turned out to be premature. In 2011, Toyota and Lexus were back on top in the Kelley Blue Book rankings.

Hammond did a similar analysis of Audi vehicles that were recalled due to similar acceleration concerns in 1986. The impact there was more significant. Audi showed an average price slide of over 16 percent relative to similar, unaffected vehicles over the course of six months.

The paper, “Sudden Unintended Used-Price Deceleration? The 2009-2010 Toyota Recalls” will be published in the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy.


]]> 26
Witchgraph Tue, 04 Oct 2011 18:51:03 +0000  

Remember when cars, especially Toyotas, suddenly had a mind of their own, started accelerating, leaving their drivers helpless and hapless? It was in the beginning of 2010. The media cited scores of allegedly killed people. Source: The NHTSA complaint database. When complaints skyrocketed, the media wrote about a dramatic increase of complaints. Now, have a look at the graph above.

This graph was compiled by Edmunds. It is a simple report. It shows the number of all complaints about all cars of any manufacturer per month. We see that in February 2010 the number of complaints exploded, it was high in March, and then consolidated at a slightly higher level than at the end of 2009. In a straight line analysis, the complaints should be approximately where they are.

Then why the jump in February and March 2010? It was the height of the witch-hunt. The height of the fakery on ABC News. It was the fools hearings on the hill.

When that was over, suddenly, as if driven by ghosts, the cars behaved again. After Toyota had been declared ghost-free by the NHTSA in February 2011, there was even a little dip in the reports. Then, all fell back to normal.

For those who are still desperate to read something into this crowd-sourced list, here a little table, also courtesy of Edmunds. It shows the YTD complaints trough August 2011, along with the rolling 12 month market share, for the top ten recipients of complaints. As you can see, things are pretty much as they should be. People seem to complain a lot about Chrysler though…

Brand YTD Share
Ford 3,303 15.9%
Chevrolet 2,820 14.0%
Toyota 2,092 11.2%
Honda 1,157 8.4%
Nissan 1,484 7.3%
Dodge 1,757 5.4%
Hyundai 788 5.0%
Jeep 1,547 3.1%
Volkswagen 581 2.4%
Chrysler 842 1.6%

Witch-hunts had been with us since ancient times. In Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Saudi Arabia, people are still tried and sentenced for witchcraft. The graph you are looking at shows that witch-hunts are alive and well in America.




]]> 29
Shameless ABC News Requests And Receives Award For Brian Ross’s Fakery Tue, 21 Jun 2011 14:51:15 +0000

While Toyota is still waiting for an apology for the fakery on network TV, a visibly unrepentant ABC News proudly declares:

“ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross and the ABC News Investigative Team have been awarded the 2011 National Edward R. Murrow Award for “Video Continuing Coverage” for their exclusive investigation that revealed how Toyota had for years ignored complaints from hundreds of its owners about cars suddenly accelerating out of control.”

Investor’s Business Daily says the Radio Television Digital News Association, which handed out the award, “must be made up of the only people on Earth who didn’t know that the story fell apart.” It gets even better. Brazen ABC submitted Ross’s work for the contest.

Says Investor’s Business Daily:

“One would think that any reputable media association would refuse to hand out an award for coverage of a story that was in fact devoid of any substance. But one would be wrong.”

“Ross by himself did not drive down Toyota’s market value and sales. But he’s the correspondent who staged the famous “death ride” in a Toyota set up to accelerate without driver input. And it was Ross’ report that featured a doctored shot of a tachometer suddenly racing to 6,000 rpm.”

Toyota had been long exonerated from any computer malfunction by NASA and NHTSA. The malfunctions in the mainstream media continue unabated.

]]> 46
Toyota Still Mad At David Gilbert, Wants Apology Fri, 17 Jun 2011 16:09:17 +0000

At today’s annual stockholders meeting in Toyota City, Toyota wrapped up most of the SUA and recall troubles that had plagued the company last year. Says The Nikkei [sub]: “When asked about the fallout from the recall of millions of vehicles over the past couple of years amid quality concerns, executive vice president Shinichi Sasaki thanked the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for clearing Toyota of some of the most serious allegations about defects in its vehicles.“

However, there is one man Toyota still holds a grudge against:

Sasaki talked about unfounded claims about problems with Toyota’s electronic throttle control. By name, he mentioned Southern Illinois University engineering professor David Gilbert. Gilbert starred in the now infamous  ABC/Brian Ross freak-show, which quickly was debunked as fakery.

Gilbert also provided testimony in congressional hearings and said that certain Toyota vehicles could be susceptible to unintended acceleration due to glitches in the cars’ electronics.  Research by NASA could not find any glitches, and Toyota was exonerated.

David Gilbert could set the record straight with a very short sentence: “I’m sorry.”

“Mr. Gilbert has yet to apologize to us, which is extremely regrettable,” Sasaki told the assembled shareholders.


]]> 44
Livechat With Jeff Liker And Timothy Ogden, Authors Of “Toyota Under Fire” Tue, 19 Apr 2011 16:46:15 +0000

]]> 5
Review: Toyota Under Fire Tue, 19 Apr 2011 14:15:07 +0000

Has it really been a year since the United States tore itself apart in a frenzy over the possibility that Toyota’s might suddenly accelerate out of control? So intense was the furor over Toyota’s alleged misdeeds, that it seems like the whole scandal occurred only yesterday, yet the brevity of the crisis already gives it the distance of ancient history. Now, just a year after the height of the hysteria, the first major book on the subject has arrived, casting a clear light on the events of the recall. Serving as a history of the scandal, a case study in Toyota’s responses to it, and a cutting critique of the media’s coverage of the recall, Toyota Under Fire is a powerful reminder of the many lessons that emerged from one of the most intense and unexpected automotive industry events in recent years.

One of the inevitable challenges facing anyone writing about the Toyota Recall Scandal is placing a starting point on the narrative. Some have suggested that long-term erosions of quality control led, inexorably, over the years to the cries. Others claim that Toyota’s rapid expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000′s sowed the seeds of its embarrassment. Though elements of these theories seem to have played some role in the events of the recall, the authors of Toyota Under Fire, Jeffery K. Liker, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, and Timothy Ogden of Sona Partners, begin by charting Toyota’s rise and then launch their narrative in earnest at the outset of the oil crisis and recession of 2008. By combining the recession (which led to the bankruptcy-bailouts of two of Toyota’s key US-based competitors) and the recall scandal, Liker and Ogden are able to paint a compelling portrait of a firm facing two very different problems.

This approach works perfectly for Toyota Under Fire, as Liker and Ogden are students of Toyota’s corporate culture and philosophy, and are able to show how Toyota applied its values to solving two very different problems. In fact, though Toyota Under Fire is the best history of the recall scandal written to date, Liker insists in his preface that

There is a great deal of detail from our investigations and interviews that doesn’t appear in this book, because this book is not intended to be a defense of Toyota or investigative journalism. Instead we’ve tried to provide the materials that are relevant to understanding the crisis and what others can learn from it. The hard times Toyota was living through allowed us to see Toyota in a different context than ever before.

This new context is the crux of the book, and Liker’s background as a decades-long student of Toyota’s corporate philosophy and previous authorship of The Toyota Way, which explores this topic, is germane. As Liker says, he is not an investigative journalist bound to the ideal of pure objectivity, but a long-term student and (admitted) admirer of Toyota’s ideas and practices. This familiarity with, and respect for, Toyota’s values meant that, when the crisis hit,

the press reports were painting a picture of a company that looked nothing like the one I know.

And though he admits that “my first instinct was to write a storm of letters to the editor and opinion columns defending Toyota,” he reveals that a friend and fellow Toyota Way acolyte reminded him that such a defense would not be in accordance with genchi gunbutsu (go and see), a key Toyota value. Instead, he and Ogden applied Toyota values like genchi gunbutsu to a thorough investigation of the recall, a process that produced Toyota Under Fire. And the key finding of their research is that, faced by both a “carpocalyptic” recession and a major recall scandal, Toyota did precisely the same thing, turning to the corporate values that launched it to the pinnacle of industrial achievement, and rigorously applying them to a variety of challenges. Both Toyota’s emergence from the twin crises and the high-quality research and analysis of Toyota Under Fire stand in tribute to these values.

Corporate mission statements may not be the reason most of us read about cars, but any student of the industry (and business leaders in any industry) will find much to learn from Toyota Under Fire’s culture-centric analysis of Toyota’s actions since 2008. For example, Toyota’s decision not to involuntarily separate its US manufacturing staff even when the recession caused massive overcapacity could be read as misguided altruism or a neo-”Jobs Bank” aimed simply at keeping workers happy, but as the authors point out, the issue is actually that Toyota sees employees as investments which become more valuable as they learn and apply Toyota’s values. This might sound like so much feel-good propaganda, but Liker and Ogden bring a wealth of evidence connecting Toyota’s values and practices with the exercises, trainings, “quality circles” and waste-eliminating efforts, and connecting these to tangible results in Toyota’s US plants. Though a large cash pile helped, Liker and Ogden point out again and again that Toyota’s profound commitment to the practical application of values like “embrace challenge,” kaizen (continuous improvement), and “customer first” allows it to emerge from challenge after challenge, stronger than before.

Having endured the recession with relatively minor losses, Toyota was poised to resume its ruthless domination of the auto industry (particularly in the US market), when the recall scandal struck in earnest in the fall of 2009, with the infamous crash of an off-duty police officer near San Diego. Here Liker and Ogden switch to a more investigative mode, focusing on the facts of each incident and recall, as well as the media’s coverage and the government’s response. TTAC readers will be familiar with the extent to which hysteria around sudden acceleration in Toyotas was fueled by ignorance, media hype and government posturing, but readers who did not seek out solid reporting on the subject or who still do not understand the issues will have their eyes opened [see also TTAC's retrospective on the recall]. Without belaboring the point, Liker and Ogden’s thorough survey of the recall’s timeline is critical of NHTSA, but damning of the news media and the trial lawyers who so masterfully manipulated it. And more than merely debunking the witch-hunt hype, Toyota Under Fire goes a step further, exploring some of the intriguing characteristics that make electronics systems and sudden unintended acceleration so vulnerable to such hysteria.

But perhaps the most fascinating chapter in Toyota Under Fire deals with Toyota’s response to the crisis, in which Liker and Ogden’s familiarity with the Toyota culture, not to mention their deep access to company figures and facilities, once again serves them well. In light of the dispassionate dissection of the media-fueled recall scandal, which serves well to put the accusations against Toyota into some much-needed context, it’s not surprising that the chapter opens with a chronological description of Toyota’s responses to the different stages of the scandal, starting with Toyota’s efforts to react to, and contain the situation. Though Toyota’s efforts to mobilize dealers and customer service call centers to deal with the problem, as well as its (somewhat belated) efforts to address widespread misperceptions are good illustrations of the company’s strategy, it isn’t until phase three “turning the crisis into an opportunity” that you really understand the point that Toyota Under Fire is trying to make.

In this section the authors begin drilling down into the root causes for the recall scandal, not simply because it’s the appropriate point in the book’s structure, but because it was at this point that Toyota’s value system forced the firm to do so itself. The authors note

Improvement kaizen and turning the crisis into an opportunity for the company to improve are dependent on correctly identifying the real problems, not just the problems presumed by outside observers. Only then can the underlying root causes of those problems be diagnosed, a necessary step before generating solutions.

The problem as identified by outsiders was, in the words of Ray LaHood, that Toyota had become “safety deaf.” Liker and Ogden explore that possibility, but argue that neither Toyota’s culture and operations nor a survey of defect and recall data show evidence of that popularly-held perception. Rather, Toyota’s internal investigations and ongoing kaizen processes pointed to a number of factors which allowed the scandal to play out. Toyota’s organizational structure, with sales split from manufacturing and overseas operations split from corporate headquarters was identified as an underlying weakness, hurting Toyota’s ability to communicate with government regulators (for example, after-sales engineering was based in Japan, unable to communicate with local regulators). Toyota’s methodical pace was acknowledged as a problem, as it fed media speculation. Another problem, possibly one of the most serious, was Toyota’s weakness in listening to customers. Shinichi Sasaki, Executive VP for global quality explains:

As you know, Toyota has made a lot of efforts to achieve the classical definition of quality control… things like the dependability and durability of the vehicles. But, if there’s a lesson from the recent recalls, it’s that things we engineers do not think are serious could sometimes create a lot of concerns on the part of the customers… We should not just be talking to the customers from a purely engineering viewpoint, but we have to care more about the customer’s feelings.

This, in a nutshell, seems to be the major area where Toyota contributed to its misfortune in the recall crisis. Not only does SUA bend the traditional “defect” paradigm, but in my opinion Toyota’s core value of not blaming customers may have denied it an important tool in explaining the distinction between a true “defect” and an opportunity to misuse or become frightened by an automobile (like installing the wrong mats, or misunderstanding the function of a “smart” cruise control system). From a pure PR perspective, one could argue that Toyota allowed its reputation to be turned on its head (at least temporarily) in order to avoid the perception that it was blaming anyone other than itself, an approach that actually fueled suspicion of it.

But, as Toyota Under Fire proves, culture is the lifeblood of Toyota, and blaming customers would have gone against a number of the firm’s cultural values, including “customer first” and “ownership and responsibility.” Though adhering to that culture put Toyota at a tactical disadvantage once in the midst of the scandal, the fact that Toyota refused to abandon its principles in a moment of desperation will ultimately maintain the firm’s strategic advantage. Had Toyota truly become “safety deaf” or actually allowed dangerous defects to be sold, it might have had some cause to rethink the culture that has launched it to the top of the auto industry. Because the recall scandal was actually caused by a number of subtle, even mundane challenges that arose from Toyota’s development, the Toyota Way (which is, at its base, a system of identifying and eliminating problems) was the perfect foundation on which to once again rebuild the company.

Toyota Under Fire ends with a number of lessons, aimed largely at leaders of organizations wishing to learn from Toyota’s experience. The authors offer lessons about cross-cultural communication, the media, confronting weaknesses, taking responsibility and more, but perhaps the most important lesson is the simplest one: commitment to a healthy culture will always trump radical change once a crisis arrives. In an industry dominated by products, personality, style and cyclical changes, it’s easy to forget that one of Toyota’s greatest contributions to modern industry is in its corporate culture.

In fact, since Toyota’s struggles last year, several industry commentators have goner as far as to wonder how Toyota ever became as dominant as it did, given that its brand and products don’t have any “special appeal” in terms of power, styling or image. What Toyota Under Fire explains so wonderfully is just how deeply engrained Toyota’s culture is in everything it does, how that culture discretely goes about the business of constant improvement, and how it delivers meaningful results even when facing huge challenges. And as Toyota has proved by becoming one of the world’s dominant automakers and then surviving two huge challenges in its largest market, the cultural “intangibles” can be the difference between success and failure.

Toyota Under Fire is available from Amazon and other fine book retailers. Contact the authors, access their research materials and order the book directly at

The Truth About Cars, Edward Niedermeyer and Bertel Schmitt are all cited as sources in this book.

]]> 49
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.

]]> 17
Ghost Busters Go Bust: Toyotas Declared Ghost-Free Tue, 08 Feb 2011 18:56:21 +0000

After tarring and feathering Toyota for alleged sudden unintended acceleration, after inventing a mass murder of 89 that creates a massive 261,000 hits on Google, after dragging executives in front of tribunals of the Washington Inquisition, after shaking down Toyota for unprecedented $48.8 million in fines, after NASA engineers subjected Toyota cars to torture worse than waterboarding, the NHTSA today announced that they found …

… exactly nothing.

In a press conference today at 2pm in Washington, the DOT presented the results of a 10-month review. It was commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and conducted by NASA engineers. The engineers who usually busy themselves with Mars and Venus went on the hunt for the ghost in Toyota’s machine.

“A U.S. government investigation showed no link between electronic throttles and unintended acceleration in Toyota Motor Corp vehicles,” writes Reuters, “a victory for the world’s top automaker battered by recalls over runaway vehicles.” The NASA’s scientists found no ghosts, no tin whiskers, no shorts, not a shred of evidence.

Even “hold Toyota’s feet to the fire” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood  had to concede: “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended acceleration in Toyotas,”

However, the punishment of Toyota before found guilty left lasting marks. Hounded by a government that has ownership interest in two car companies that are in direct competition with Toyota, the Japanese carmaker lost a full two percent of market share in the U.S. in 2010. While the market grew 11 percent in the U.S. in 2010, Toyota was treading water. This was the first time in 12 years that Toyota lost ground in the U.S. Interestingly, SUA remained a U.S. phenomenon, as freshly evidenced by Toyota’s strong sales elsewhere.

As Reuters notes: “The recalls, government scrutiny, which included testimony by Chief Executive Akio Toyoda at congressional hearings a year ago, and more than $30 million in fines damaged Toyota’s reputation for quality and reliability.”

Toyota’s troubles in the U.S. are far from over. Toyota has to contend with hundreds of lawsuits, along with an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they can grind you down.

Audi had received a similar, but by comparison much milder treatment in the 80s that nonetheless nearly killed the brand in the U.S. Audi was subsequently exonerated by the NHTSA, which concluded that driver error was the cause. At the time, I had witnessed the drama from the inside. Today’s revelation comes as no surprise to me.

Nonetheless, SUA remains a phenomenon that affects all brands. After Toyota had been singled out and painted as SUA incarnate, there is a belated study by the august body of the National Academy of Sciences which looks into unintended acceleration in cars and trucks across the auto industry. Results are expected sometime this fall. Any guesses what they may be?

Despite coming up empty, LaHood said the NHTSA is thinking about new regulations:  Brake override systems on all vehicles, standardizing keyless ignition systems, event data recorders in all new vehicles.

The NHTSA also considers conducting more research on electronic control systems and will look into the placement and design of accelerator and brake pedals. Shades of Audi …

]]> 46
Toyota: Perplexed NHTSA Calls On The National Academy Of Science Thu, 01 Jul 2010 06:57:52 +0000

Pre-recall, Toyota was the company to emulate. It was very profitable, its business and production model was the envy of the world (with Lexus-owning Alan Mulally praising it) and it had an iron grip on quality and reliability (even though Honda could have had that title). Then came “acceler-gate”. Customers were petrified their Toyotas would creep out of their garages and run them down in the middle of the night. The government held numerous show trials senate hearings to give the illusion that it was protecting the American people from the nasty foreigners. Only an outcast few questioned the fact that the hearings were conducted by an entity which held significant stakes in two of Toyota’s competitors. If you think about it, is like going to trial on a murder charge and the judge and jury are made up of members of the victim’s family. Yes, it looked like Toyota was down and out. Then, something amazing happened. The ABC News’ “story” on Toyota acceleration was found to be a fake. Customers’ accounts of Toyotas going wild were exposed as lies and some countries stuck by Toyota. So after this roller-coaster ride, was else could happen? Well…

The Wall Street Journal reports members of congress, consumer advocates and product-liability lawyers have continually suggested that engine electronics could be the source of the Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA). There’s just one problem with that hypothesis. The NHTSA is having trouble finding any electrical gremlins with Toyota vehicles.

To assist in their ghostbusting search, NHTSA recruited the help of the most august body of scienctif knowledge, the National Academy of Sciences. The NHTSA needs help- “We have not actually been able to find a defect of electronic-throttle-control systems in Toyota vehicles” said Dan Smith of the NHTSA to the assembled panel of scientists. As far as Mr Smith can see, there’s only two causes of SUA, floor-mat entrapment of the pedals (which we already knew about) and accelerator pedal which are slow to idle (which was fixed by the “shim”). Mr Smith didn’t rule out electrical gremlins (smart move) and said that the investigations are ongoing (until people forget they were barking up the wrong tree, though he may not have said that part). To add further insult to Toyota’s injury, Roger Saul, who also works for the NHTSA, told the panel of the National Academy of Sciences that since Toyota’s first recall in October 2009, they received complaints of 64 crashes involving 78 deaths. How many could possibly be Toyota’s fault? “Regulators have been able to verify that only one of those incidents was caused by a vehicle defect,” Saul said. Someone send Saul to Plum Island! What we’ve got here is a serious case of highly contagious foot in mouth disease. Or should he be telling the truth?

NHTSA Chief David Strickland also told the panel that unintended acceleration is a problem that affects all major car manufacturers. Really, Mr Strickland? I could have told you that. What you can tell me, is when the NHTSA will launch an investigation into all major car manufacturers.

]]> 24
SUA: No Ghosts Found In Toyotas, More Deaths Claimed In Other Cars Thu, 20 May 2010 12:37:38 +0000

Despite intensive examination of more than 2,000 vehicles, Toyota could not find a ghost in their machines. This is what James Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. sales chief will tell a House of Representatives panel today, if Bloomberg is not mistaken.

Following-up a rash of customer complaints about unintended acceleration, which intensified as media coverage intensified, Toyota conducted 600 on-site inspections and more than 1,400 at its dealerships, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be told today. “Significantly, none of these investigations have found that our Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence was the cause,” will be the key sentence in Lentz’s prepared remarks.

The committee members will hear that Toyota technicians found double- or triple-stacked floor mats in the cars of customers that had complained about runaway Toyotas. Customers will need to be made aware of the fact that higher engine speeds can occur when a car is started in cold weather, or when air conditioning kicks in.

But no car computers with a mind of their own, or growing tin whiskers have been found.

In a not totally unrelated story, Bloomberg reported a few days ago, that ”U.S. regulators have tracked more deaths in vehicles made by Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and other companies combined than by Toyota Motor Corp. during three decades of unintended acceleration reviews that often blamed human error.”

59 of 110 fatalities “attributed to sudden acceleration in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records occurred in vehicles other than those sold by Toyota, whose recalls have drawn widespread attention to the issue, according to data compiled for Bloomberg News by the NHTSA,” says the report.  Of the 51 fatalities in Toyota vehicles, 36 were reported after Oct. 5 of last year, following  publicity SUA in Toyotas. “Attributed to” means that someone, usually a lawyer, blamed that car for an accident. “Caused by” would mean that the car was the killer. There are no “caused by” stats.

Since 1980, NHTSA received 15,174 complaints about SUA. 141 complaints triggered investigations, 112 investigations were closed without corrective action. NHTSA repeatedly concluded that crashes occurred because drivers mistakenly stomped on the accelerator. According to Bloomberg, this turned into a policy position that caused investigators to take complaints of runaway vehicles less seriously.

In August 2007, a Toyota employee visited NHTSA, and later wrote that the agency’s staff “laughed or rolled their eyes in disbelief” when he told them he was at their offices as part of a sudden acceleration allegation involving floor mats.

]]> 11
Toyota Heading For The Hill, Again Sat, 17 Apr 2010 10:27:28 +0000

Toyota received another invitation to join a little congressional chit-chat,  reports The Nikkei [sub]. On May 6th,  a U.S. House panel will hold a hearing to “further examine Toyota’s inquiry into potential electronic causes of sudden unintended acceleration,” as the invitation letter from Henry Waxman to James Lentz, president of Toyota U.S. says. The presence of Lentz is requested at the hearing.

This time, the main topic will be the study of Exponent. Toyota had said the findings of Exponent had exonerated them from any wrongdoing on part of their electronic systems.

Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak asked Toyota to turn over more documents dealing with the company’s relations with Exponent. Waxman and Stupak want to see contracts and email correspondence between Exponent and Toyota.

Not so fast: Exponent was hired by Toyota’s outside law firm. The firm will most likely claim that some of the communications are protected by attorney-client privilege.

Most likely, the line of questioning will be to support the theory that the people at Exponent are paid shills for Toyota.

To which Toyota will reply that their shills answered accusations by a shill hired by a firm doing shill work for plaintiff lawyers. Nah, they won’t say that. It would be the truth.

]]> 6
Gilbert’s Toyota Shenanigans Explained Sun, 07 Mar 2010 16:09:07 +0000

This is left brain – right brain weekend. While the more image driven can submerge themselves in pictures of old car ads, the other faction can unleash their inner nerd with abandon. Yesterday, we covered how ABC had entered the grail of automotive disaster-fakery, previously populated by NBC and CBS. ABC’s smoking gun video had been torn to shreds.

Today, we turn our attention to the man who aided and abetted the tricksters: Associate professor David Gilbert of the renowned Southern Illinois University. His work has been inspected by Exponent, a research company hired by Toyota. Hired by Toyota? Well, that should discredit Exponent immediately. Not so fast.

Crash Sled thankfully has found a full copy of Exponent’s retort to Gilbert’s machinations. The report is hosted on the ABC website, so we can assume it passed ABC’s scrutiny, for what that may be worth. Let’s look at the report a little closer.

Warning: This discussion needs a basic understanding of electric circuitry. If that’s not your thing, then don’t waste you time reading further. We’ll leave you to Sunday’s pictures with the message that Gilbert is a charlatan extraordinaire, and that whoever put him on the stand to make a case against Toyota needs to have his or her head examined. However, should you own a 2010 Toyota Avalon, then you have slight cause for concern.

Quick review of the theory: You may remember the discussion that ensued after Ed Niedermeyer had first presented Gilbert’s work a little bit more than a week ago. Gilbert had introduced what he called “a short” to the throttle-by-wire circuitry of a Toyota, and the car took off. A big parsing of words ensued about what consists of a short, and what not. Never mind. Now we know what Gilbert had done.

Follow me please to the picture on top. Ignore the red and green part for a moment, we get to that in a minute. You see the basic circuitry of a Toyota Electronic Throttle Control System (ETCS.) It consists of two separate Hall sensors (housed in the “Accelerator Position Sensor”). The Hall sensors talk to the Engine Control Module (ECM). The throttle position is sent twice to the ECM, via the VPA wire and via the VPA2 wire.

The voltages on VPA and VPA2 are offset, the theory behind it becomes clear when examining the “ETCS Theory” picture on the left. This picture has been lifted from educational material, thanks to ControlsGuy.

Now what did Gilbert do? According to the Exponent document, he did what anybody would do who knows a little bit about resistors, and who has the educational material made available by ControlsGuy. Actually, just from looking at the data, I had recommended exactly the same procedure 10 days ago.

Follow the red circuit. Gilbert connected the VPA output of the primary Hall sensor to the VPA2 output of the secondary Hall sensor. He did not “short” it (this would have caused an immediate fault,) he connected it through a carefully selected 200 ohms resistor. Anything below 50 ohms and anything higher than 250 ohms would have triggered a fault. According to Exponent, “adding the resistance did not noticeably change the operation of the engine.” This does not come as a surprise to someone who knows his V = I * R. To get the engine going, Gilbert had to do something else.

Follow the green part of the circuit. Gilbert connected VPA2 to what Exponent calls “one of the 5-volt power supply wires from the accelerator pedal,” and the car took off without setting a fault. Why? Because the engine computer saw the voltages on VPA and VPA2 rise in unison. Balanced by the carefully chosen resistor, the voltages on both lines rose within the offset limits. The ECM had no reason to get alarmed, or set a fault code. It told the throttle to open wide. Gilbert carefully engineered the setup so that the ECM saw what it wanted to see. The ECM can read and compare voltages. It cannot read a wicked mind.

By the way, Gilbert and Exponent say that this circuit trickery only works if the VPA2 side is connected to +5V. Connecting VPA to +5V would trigger a fault. Students of the ETCS Theory diagram immediately see why: VPA would go to 5V, would rise above VPA2, the ECM would decide that things are solidly out of whack and would immediately surrender into limp mode.

For the Intended Gilbert Acceleration to occur in the wild, several things would have to happen in the exact sequence: First, the isolation for both VPA and VPA2 would have to break down. Then, a connection between VPA and VPA2 would have to be established. Into this connection, a resistance of no less than 50 ohms and no higher than 250 ohms would have to be connected. Once, and only once this connection between VPA and VPA2 has been established through the proper resistor, VPA2 (and not VPA) would have to be connected to +5V. Then, the car would take off.

Says Exponent: “For such an event to happen in the real world requires a sequence of faults that is extraordinarily unlikely.” What is more, the unlikely sequence would have left “a fingerprint” as Exponent calls it, broken or scorched insulation, stains, if not the “short” itself. Nothing of that kind has been recorded.

One minor problem remains. That problem has not been raised by Gilbert (shame on you,) nor by Exponent (well, they are paid by Toyota:) Connecting VPA2 to +5V should be recognized as a short to power, and the system should go into limp mode. We don’t know whether the Avalon would go into limp with the 200 ohms resistor removed and VPA2 connected to +5V. Let’s assume it would. Nonetheless, a basic failsafe step is missing in the Avalon. And the Avalon is pretty much alone with this problem, as we shall soon see.

Exponent went on to test the same setup with six other cars: A 2007 Toyota Camry, a 2009 Mercedes E350, a 2003 BMW 325i, a 2008 Honda Accord, a 2006 Subaru Impreza Outback, and a 2005 Chrysler Crossfire. Interestingly, the Gilbert rigging produced the same results in all cars. Same results. But not quite the same rigging.

When the 2007 Toyota Camry was tested, nothing happened again when VPA was connected with VPA2 through a 200 ohms resistor. However, when VPA2 was connected to +5V, the ECM registered a fault, did set an error code and put the Camry into limp mode. The older Camry computer recognized the short to power. Exponent had to do what I thought necessary 10 days ago.

Please proceed to the next drawing. Follow the green circuit. Exponent added a 100 ohm (Resistor 2) into the line to +5V. Resistor 2 dropped the supply voltage to a level that would not look like a short. The engine started to rev. Again, that was expected. The 200 ohms Resistor 1 maintained the offset between VPA and VPA2. The 100 ohms Resistor 2 kept the signal voltage from looking unhealthy. Varying Resistor 2 between 200 ohms and 15 ohms changed engine speed: A low cost aftermarket cruise control (don’t try this at home.)

Testing the other cars provided the same results. The Honda Accord needed a 300 ohms resistor between the two redundant pedal sensors. The Subaru wanted a 100 ohms resistor. The others were happy with the 200 ohms. All cars needed a resistor between +5, just like the Camry. None of them did set an error code.  Smoking gun? More like smoke and mirrors.

If you remember the discussion 10 days ago, the “inverted” setting of the redundant sensors in non-Toyotas drew quite some attention. Exponent notes that “for the Subaru, the two accelerator pedal position sensors produce parallel and nearly identical output voltages. For the other vehicles, the line slopes for sensor 1 and sensor 2 are different and not parallel to each other.” Surprisingly, this did not harden their circuitry against Gilbert-like shenanigans.

Says Exponent: “Dr. Gilbert opined in his report that several vehicle manufacturers currently use this fault detection strategy and that a short between the two pedal sensor outputs would be detected by the ECM. However, tests with pedal position sensors from five other manufacturers using his strategy demonstrate that the electrical wiring to the pedal can also be manipulated to create an apparent ‘sudden’ onset of acceleration and engine revving.” (Exponent does not say what happens when you vary the resistance to +5V and hence the input voltage, like they did with the Camry.)

There is much more in the report, such as a study of connectors, a look into the likelihood of wiring insulation, ECM and pedal failures. There is even a quote from NASA’s Fault Tree Construction Ground Rules that recommend to ignore shorts to ground and power: “Do not model wiring faults between components. Generally, wiring faults, such as shorts to ground and shorts to power, have very low probabilities compared to probabilities of major components failing.” What’s good enough for the space shuttle is not necessarily good enough for your car. In any case, study of this material is left as an exercise to the student.

Class and Professor dismissed.

]]> 61