By on February 24, 2010

Toyota’s Jim Lentz (who, I’m obligated to share, bears a striking resemblance to the dad from “Teen Wolf”) spent nearly two and a half hours before a committee that by then was investigating what expert witnesses described as an unknown, untraceable electronics error of nearly limitless reach. With this white whale taking the foreground of the committee’s imagination, the committee sharpened its harpoons, licked its lips and sailed out upon uncertain seas in search of its elusive quarry.

Lentz gave a straightforward statement describing Toyota’s response to the scandal, reiterating the company’s position that floormats or sticky gas pedals could explain Toyota’s UA problem. Lentz admitted that he was no engineer, but he refused to be pulled into quicksand of the vague claims of unidentified electronic problems. When told by the committee that Toyota’s counsel had admitted that sticky pedals might not explain “sudden high speed acceleration events,” Lentz eventually did admit that the floormat and pedal recalls won’t “totally” prevent future cases of unintended acceleration. “We need to remain vigilant,” said Lentz.

Lentz said that he was “confident” that Toyota’s testing of its electronic throttle control unit (ECTU) in Japan had turned up no problems. Chairman Waxman questioned how Dr Gilbert was able to come up with evidence of a problem (or at least evidence of a possible absence of evidence) within three hours of work on the ECTU, but Lentz claimed that Toyota’s (and its outside research firm Exponent’s) investigations hadn’t been able to reproduce them. In any case, Gilbert’s evidence didn’t show how malfunctions like the Smith’s actually happened.

Perhaps the biggest issue that Lentz faced was the fact that 70 percent of UA complaints in Toyota’s own database were in vehicles not affected by the recall. This was presented as evidence of the mysterious electronics scenario, a thrust that Lentz was obligated to defend against. But just as congress couldn’t tell Ms Smith that her story didn’t add up, Lentz made it very clear that he would not blame customers. Instead, he took the more politically palatable route of arguing definitions, arguing that sticky pedals would account for unintended acceleration but not sudden unintended acceleration. Though Lentz admitted that Toyota hadn’t responded well enough to consumer feedback, he brought unwanted nuance into the hearing by suggesting that all unintended acceleration is not created equal. As Lentz’s statement reads:

Why did it take so long to get to this point? With respect to pedal entrapment, Toyota conducted investigations of customer complaints which focused too narrowly on technical issues without taking full account of the way customers used our vehicles. And in the case of sticking accelerator pedals, we failed to promptly analyze and respond to information emerging from Europe and in the United States.

The upshot of Lentz’s epic grilling was that Toyota had grown too fast and that weaknesses in internal communication prevented the company from responding to in a timely manner to customer complaints. In this sense, he was surprisingly in step with the trial-lawyer-funded expert witnesses who will doubtless go on testify in several of the pending suits against Toyota. As Kane put it, unintended acceleration is a complex problem with a number of root causes. But while Kane’s agenda is to leverage this uncertainty into the perception of an as yet unidentified electronics problem, Lentz’s agenda was to suggest as tactfully as possible that human error (or, “the way our customers used our vehicles”) could play a role as well. The committee embraced complexity when it fit the outline of its white whale, but when Lentz broadened this complexity to include scenarios that take human fallibility into account, the hunting party was thrown into chaos.

Unable to catch sight of the white whale that the first panel of witnesses had sent them in search of, the committee had to satisfy itself with Lentz’s admission that it did not respond quickly enough to customer complaints. With the phantom menace still as mysteriously undefined as ever, the committee members who wanted more from Toyota than contrition over a failure to connect the dots in customer complaints resorted bashing Toyota for totally unrelated reasons. But by the time that California Rep. McNerney accused Toyota of not doing enough to prevent the shutdown of NUMMI, Lentz was pretty clearly out of the woods. Lentz’s rebuttal that GM’s pullout from NUMMI was the catalyst for what McNerney termed “Toyota’s antipathy to West Coast workers” reminded the committee that congress’s record in regulating the auto industry was hardly a sterling one.

Ultimately, Lentz left the hearing having admitted that Toyota was less than entirely competent in tracking its consumer feedback in order to keep its customers safe. In this sense, the hearing publicly shamed Toyota and cemented the damage that had already been done by the scandal. Where Lentz did succeed admirably was in putting the fevered distress over a possible software gremlin into context. In Lentz’s words:

Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts.

Comedy is born in the space between our expectations and reality. Having been prepped by its expert witnesses to believe that Toyotas are afflicted with a mysterious, pervasive electronic gremlin, the House Energy Committee combed Lentz’s testimony for evidence of this improbable scenario. The ensuing attack on Toyota for the NUMMI closure would have been humorous enough, but the comedic irony in the situation goes even deeper: the shortcomings of human nature that led the committee on a convoluted search for simple answers to complex problems are the same shortcomings that lead individuals to concoct inexplicable narratives as the only possible explanation for their own failings in a moment of crisis. That Lentz was able to let this deceptively complex truth shine through in the midst of a congressional hearing (which are not known for their insightful nuance, to put it mildly) without explicitly blaming customers is a tribute to his performance. Though Toyota’s shortcomings in customer service were acknowledged, the committee failed to land their mythical quarry, which would have permanently destroyed Toyota’s reputation forever.

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24 Comments on “Toyota Testimony, Day One: A Comedy In Three Parts: Act Two: The White Whale...”

  • avatar

    As Cessna and Piper found out over years and years in court, most of it was pilot error, but somehow they were all held responsible. That’s why an average 4 place is around $550,000 when it should be half that, thanks to the lawyers. I guess Toyotas will start at $50,000 soon.

    • 0 avatar
      Facebook User

      Hopefully Toyota won’t need a “Camry Revitalization Act” to get back in the market. They’ll need to wait a long time.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Having defended many airplane crash cases I can confirm we had our share caused by pilot error, but certainly more than a few where someone other than or in addition to the pilot was at fault – including the manufacturer. Your use of the word “most” is a gross overstatement. It is fine to design a product to work, but it must also be designed to be used and maintained over its life. What purpose does a push button start have other than to reduce parts count and cost? What about electronic brakes and steering? And using your aviation analogy, aircraft must have redundant systems. Change should not be implemented for change’s sake and when a manufacturer introduces a new technology, they should assure themselves and their customers that it can be properly used and maintained for the life of the vehicle – otherwise, bear the consequences.

  • avatar

    …the shortcomings of human nature that led the committee on a convoluted search for simple answers to complex problems…

    One of the hallmarks of very arrogant, self-important people is that they tend to believe there are simple answers to complex problems, and that they know what those answers are, and that you, in trying to communicate that complex problems are in fact complex, are in fact an idiot.

    • 0 avatar


      And Ed, very well-written summary.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 also. And kudos, Ed. Robert F. should be proud of you!

      And psar, one of those “very arrogant, self-important people” is Sean Kane, right?

    • 0 avatar

      Often the simple answers are the best ones.

      We hate most in others what we see in ourselves.

    • 0 avatar

      Often the simple answers are the best ones.

      I will agree with that, which is why the floor mats are the most likely cause of most of the SUA incidents, and why the shim is a distant second**. There are very few ways ways you can generate WOT without making various redundant, sanity-checked inputs scream, but there is one very easy way to do it without triggering so much as a peep: physically obstruct the pedal.

      But misplaced floormats don’t pander to our inner Christine fears. Nor does a quarter-inch of steel plate.

      Again, we have people trying to understand a complex system in simple terms, and being really arrogant about it. It’s essentially “We don’t understand electronic throttles and software, so they must be the problem”.

      ** or third, since applying Occam’s Razor truthfully leads us right to Driver Error’s doorstep.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    Yeah, you knew Government Motors was gonna raise the NUMMI issue, but even I was surprised to see them raise it in so ham-handed a fashion.

    I agree Lentz smartly attempted to deflect attention from Toyota’s consumers, and spare Toyota any potential backlash, but I disagree that he put the “possible software gremlin” into proper context. He needed to be more clear here.

    It’s acceptable for him to say that they are vigilantly testing their systems, and will do so even more robustly, but that committee seemed to be using that vigilance as proof of defect.

    That vigilance is or should be the normal process, not proof of fault, and Lentz, the consummate salesman, was incapable of communicating that simple idea.

    Leave it to a salesman to clumsily communicate that “we can’t guarantee SUA won’t happen in the future”. Yes, this a true statement, for ANY OEM, but it requires the proper contextual framework around it. Toyota’s master salesman didn’t do the job here.

  • avatar

    What’s scary is, I believe Rep. McNerney believed she could actually get Lentz on the record stating he’ll reconsider the NUMMI closing.

    I realize she’s not an engineer or a salesperson, but do the words “Joint Venture” mean nothing to her? Honestly, my heart sunk when she brought that up…it has NOTHING TO DO with this investigation.

    • 0 avatar

      McNerney had to ask the question in order to seen to be doing something. I don’t think an answer was seriously expected, but the question had to be asked in case future opponents ask why it wasn’t.

  • avatar

    The answer to McNerney’s question on NUMMI should have been, “How does this relate to SUA?”

  • avatar

    More people have been killed riding the DC Metro than in Toyotas with stuck gas pedals.

    Did you see the teary testimony form the woman who called here husband on a cell phone while her car was hurtling out of control? Ma’am, you might want to remember the emergency procedures in this order: Transmission in neutral, steer to shoulder, turn engine off, then call hubby.

    • 0 avatar

      I was mentally processing the same during the testimony, until she clarified but she did cover these in her testimony as what she attempted to do when trying to stop the vehicle,

      Here is where it got bizarre —

      The piece of the puzzle they left out in most of the online clips but included in the testimony…with the engine finally shut-off, the vehicle “started by itself” when the car was shifted to Neutral (for towing purposes) without the key fob engaged (keyless start) or being anywhere near the vehicle.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The old-fashioned $5 throttle cable is looking better and better.

  • avatar

    Obviously, IQ Tests are not a requirement for obtaining a license to drive.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but why is it that there are a disproportionate amount of SUA incidents in the U.S compared to the rest of the world???

      MHO is that Ms.Smith had the cruise control on (the same cruise stalk Toyota/Lexus has used since 91) and didn’t cancel it, seems obvious enough and I wouldn’t put it past anyone.

    • 0 avatar
      Brian P

      Most Toyotas sold in the rest of the world don’t have automatic transmissions. Every driver of a manual transmission vehicle has to know how to immediately disconnect engine power to the wheels … you can’t change gears without using the clutch pedal. Not every auto-tranny driver knows what that “N” position does, aside from being a never-used useless-appearing waste of space between “R” and “D”.

      Most Toyotas sold in the rest of the world don’t have 250+ horsepower engines. It’s easier to overcome a lower-powered engine with the brakes, and stuff happens in less of a hurry if the engine does go to full throttle.

      A good many Toyotas sold in the rest of the world have diesel engines. Why does this make a difference? Because diesel engines don’t have intake manifold vacuum – they use vacuum pumps, which generate vacuum all the time, no matter if the engine is at full throttle or not. At full throttle, a gasoline engine doesn’t have intake manifold vacuum. Why does THAT make a difference? Because power brakes operate using vacuum. Diesel engine = power assist all the time. Gasoline engine = power assist fails if the engine is at full throttle and the driver pumps the brakes.

      And the elephant in the room … Driver training in the USA and Canada is a joke.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Brian

      You may have me sold on the fact that diesels and muanuals are virtually extinct here in North America, and given the fact that brakes will still operate under certain loads and conditions. This still doesn’t answer SUA incidents in other parts of the world, sure you may be able to stop when given that situation, yet where are those situation(s)?

      Now I don’t have numbers here in front of me but the reports and incidents given all things being equal in Canada and the U.S are still much higher in the U.S than in Canada. Even if you took all of the incidents in the U.S and divided by 10 (300 million vs.30 million) it would still be grossly disproportionate.

  • avatar

    Was anyone really expecting Congress to really be able to get to him? It isn’t like he is going to say anything detrimental about the company. Saying Toyota can’t reproduce what Gilbert is talking about is quite interesting.

    I am surprised that the leaked memos talking about Toyota saving money on recalls and delaying safety didn’t come up in the meeting. Maybe they are saving that for Mr. Toyoda.

  • avatar

    Sorry Ed, Mr. Lentz did say that driver error was one of the possible reasons for the engine speed to increase.

    He had a list of potential causes, “a/c idle up/down, etc., etc., driver error, etc.” but Lentz only seemed to get thru the list completely (and to the ‘driver error’ point) once, and even then, Lentz said it more ‘sotto-voce’ as IIRC one of the congressmen was talking over him.

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