Many NHTSA Complaints Unverifiable

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

Just as Paul Niedermeyer, Edmunds, Consumer Reports or anybody else who has the time to download and analyze 103.1 Mbytes worth of customer complaints to NHTSA, Toyota is pouring over the data. However, their attempts are being thoroughly frustrated.

According to The Nikkei [sub], Toyota found out that oftentimes complaints submitted to the NHTSA “either are unverifiable or lack vehicle-owner information required to facilitate follow-up.” In other words, a lot of the complaints look like they are bogus. Even if they are real, their validity cannot be ascertained.

And herein lies the rub:

Anybody can file on-line complaints at NHTSA without a VIN number. Try it. With any car make you hate. Anybody can give a bogus email and a likewise bogus physical address. There is no on-line checking. That information is as useful as most of the email we receive each day: It is garbage. Counting garbage intermixed with real complaints is useless unless the garbage has been removed. Drawing statistical conclusions from a 0.03 percent complaint rate, poisoned by data that just asks for being abused and messed with, is an exercise in futility. It takes us back to the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages, where anybody could point at a woman, call her a witch, and get her submitted to the sink or swim test. At least in the Middle Ages, you couldn’t do it anonymously and on-line. As Wikipedia says: “In modern terminology ‘witch-hunt’ has acquired usage referring to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence.”

If Carfax can correlate a VIN number with a car’s whole history, then the NHTSA should at least be able to cross-reference a VIN-number with an owner. Why does the NHTSA accept and publish a complaint without a VIN? Does the IRS process your tax return without a SSN or tax payer’s ID? If I can’t order a book at Amazon without a credit card number that matches my address, why can I report dead people to the government without the merest of checks? Idiocy or intentional? You decide.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href=""> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href=""> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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  • Jeff Waingrow Jeff Waingrow on Mar 07, 2010

    Bertel, after having had the chance to read the full New York Times article about the anti-consumer bent in Japan, assuming you believe the narrative, I think one might give little credence to the supposed number of complaints of unintended acceleration in Japanese Toyotas (which were notably low). When authorities want numbers to be low, is it really that hard to force the issue on individual compainants? I'm guessing that complaints in all venues have been held down as long as possible. I believe they call that "damage control",no? Anyway, if you look at the drug companies in the U.S., there are a large number of documented cases where negative findings were obscured or buried in order to continue sales of problematic but highly profitable drugs. Studies were sometimes even designed to distort the reality, and a sometimes-purposely underfunded FDA completely missed the boat. Further, need I mention the SEC's sorry regulatory performance during the recent Bush years? Not wanting to be political, I'm the first to admit that Democrats have had their share of failures too and have been happy to take drug company contributions. The recent Supreme Court decision only exacerbates this dreadful trend. I'm guessing that this mirrors much of what has been happening in recent years in Japan.

  • Herb Herb on Mar 07, 2010

    @Bertel: "In Germany, where nothing remains unnoticed by the Kraftfahrtbundesamt, UA doesn’t seem to exist. We’ve asked the B&B abroad. No reports from abroad." Still no reports up to now. It seems to indicate a totally different "driving environment" in the US compared to the rest of the world. There certainly is no "anti-consumer bent" in Germany, for example. But I still don't get it. I do not believe in conspiracies. There seems to be a technical problem. But why is this a major problem in the US and not in the rest of the world? Toyota seems to sell entirely different cars in the US. There is another point: "Statistically, and given the way the data are collected, 9 per 100,000 or 15 per 100,000 don’t matter. It’s background noise". That seems to indicate that US MSM hype is the major driving force in this case. As "Global Warming" is currently not so hot a topic, maybe MSM honchos are utilizing UA now instead.

  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
  • Teddyc73 Since when did automakers or car companies become "OEM". Probably about the same time "segment" or "class" became "space". I wish there were more sedans. I would like an American sedan. However, as others have stated, if they don't sell in large enough quantities to be profitable the automakers...I mean, "OEMs" aren't going to build them. It's simple business.
  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.