By on March 6, 2010

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.

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42 Comments on “Many NHTSA Complaints Unverifiable...”

  • avatar

    Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.

    I think it’s likely there is a problem of some kind, but the inevitable “me too” effect which seems to accompany anything that gets much publicity and the useless nature of the NHTSA data makes it virtually impossible to get to the bottom of it. If this were a proper trial with Toyota as the defendant any honest judge would have to dismiss the charges. But unfortunately this has become more about politics than justice. I feel sorry for Toyota.

  • avatar

    Because the information systems suck.

    In the finest government and big business tradition, they were probably handed out to the lowest bidder who can arrange a good game of golf, and those information systems are administered by middle managers whose idea of “systems integration” is to print it out and make a minimum-wage typing clerk key it into another system.

    Amazon lives and dies by an efficient IS, as does the IRS. The NHTSA does not have it as a priority.

    There’s an interesting (and mildly horrifying) discussion and links here.

  • avatar

    In the pre-SUA-crisis days, NHTSA appeared to be able to filter the crap out and come to somewhat reasonable conclusions. Now that Congress has jumped into the “what did you know and when did you know it” mode, this will undoubtedly change.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    I don’t question the essential points in Bertel’s piece. After all, who could doubt that yet another thing was badly thought through? Still, the law, as regards civil torts at least, says that you must come to court with “clean hands”. Today’s New York Times reports (presumably correctly) that there have been no Toyotas recalled in Japan for unintended acceleration problems. This is due to the very pro-business attitude that exists there, the piece claims. Perhaps someone at TTAC knows differently? Toyota has been disingenuous about this whole matter from the beginning, and all the bowing by their CEOs will not change that fact. So when Toyota cries wolf…

    • 0 avatar

      Jeff: TTAC has reported that the Japanese Ministry of Transportation has received 134 reports of unintended acceleration over three years, 38 of which pertaining to Toyota. A far cry from the thousands NHTSA gets. They are looking into them. Supposedly, the shimmied CTS pedals are not used in Japan, they use Denso pedals. Hence no recall. Cars with CTS pedals are recalled elsewhere in the world. And what does Japan’s policy of recalls have to do with the fact that any kid with a laptop can fake NHTSA reports? Try it. No hacking skills needed.

      This “system” just begs to be abused.

    • 0 avatar

      Seems both govt infrastructure and consumers are not attuned to complaints…

      Similarity betw jpn and US systems is reliance on oems to support investigations in a spirit of voluntary compliance and trust. if an oem wants to plax hide the weenie, they can play it in both markets, rhe big difference being that in the US, the consumers will be less likely to let a story die…

      I said in several other posts that it should be mandatory that a person enter their ssn, vin and personal contact details (these could be shielded from the general public) and data should be accumulated in a checklist q&a form, so the information is consistent … then filters could be added based on a verification of veracity made by the investigator in doing the 100% follow-up that Sec LaHood mentioned…

      Simple as that, these two measures would a) raise an inhibition to filing bogus data and b) allowing rejection of any data not associated with a verified submitter.

      Could be implemented next week and applied to all the toyota sua complaints the week after. theoretically simple as that.

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe the reason they haven’t had any recalls in Japan is that they don’t have a hysterical anti-business government and media.

      When history is written, it will be proven that 99.9% of all legitimate SUA problems are human error. It will also be shown that 60-70 of all NHTSA complaints are unverifiable and not accurate. Probably the unions and anti-Toyota groups will be found to be entering bogus information into NHTSA databases to hurt Toyota and garner headlines.

      I can’t believe the VIN isn’t even verified. I looked at some of the NHTSA information and about 10-20% were exact duplicates. So there are a lot of reasons this data is getting reported out of whack.

      Almost ALL automakers use the electronic throttle systems. And they all use the same, relatively small, group of suppliers. So if there was a fundamental flaw, then it wouldn’t just be Toyota would it? My guess is that a large number of the ETCS that Toyota usses are the same identical ones used in GM, Ford, and others.

  • avatar

    Consumer Reports will find creative ways to give Toyota its usual red dots. This is how deep their bias is. They are beneath contempt.

    • 0 avatar

      It is absolutely scary how many members of the car buying public live and die by those little red dots.

      It makes my brain hurt to try and figure out those CR ratings. I know they swear that no bias of any sort enters into their evaluations but… They just aren’t right.

  • avatar

    Sorry, I’m no fan of Toyota, but this is typical of many Americans of a certain ilk. Cry wolf, have congressional hearings, embarrass and humiliate a lot of people for no reason, then slink back into the woodwork when the truth comes out. These people need to have their own asses kicked. They are a bunch of self serving do nothings trying to justify their pathetic ambitions. Maybe we need congressional hearings about useless Congressional members?

  • avatar

    How many people wouldn’t know where to find their VIN or even know they had one?

    Just because the system isn’t good doesn’t mean it has to be.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Thanks, Bertel. Sounds reasonable. Still, despite the obvious opportunities for abusing Toyota, and the obvious conflict of interest wherein the government here has such a stake in the domestics, this will not go down in the case study books at Harvard Business School as an example of how to get out ahead of a problem that can potentially do grievous damage to one’s brand. Or perhaps you think otherwise? BTW, I find the notorious Toyota internal emails troubling, and indicative of a mindset whose first instinct is to do anything but come clean. In fact, Toyota has contradicted itself at every turn, has it not? No defender of the domestics, but woe if Chrysler or GM had done the same.

    • 0 avatar

      I have asked before what Toyota should have done to “get in front of the story.” I received no answer.

      I had been in the industrial propaganda business for most of my professional life. If Toyota would would have asked me last year how to handle a problem of which they don’t know that it exists, let alone how to fix it, I would have recommended: “Don’t blame pilot error. Do something. Appease the masses.” Which is just what they did. It did not work.

      If they would ask me now, I’d just shrug my shoulders and humbly mumble “wakarimasen” – I have no idea.

    • 0 avatar
      Buffs Fan

      Thanks for all of your articles Bertel. As prolific as you are at writing, I can see why you were successful in PR.

      I think Toyota is having a tough time getting ahead of this story because they don’t seem to know the answer. They denied for many years that there was a problem, then when they announced a recall of they floor mats, they were in essence admitting they were wrong. The crash of the state police office where 4 people died really put the pressure on as well.

      I think a lot of people thought the floor mat was a kind of hokey reason for the problem. Then they said some of their pedal may stick. But the reported problems seem more like acceleration is being increased, not a pedal failing to return. It seems like they have an electronic issue, but they won’t share their black box data. To get ahead of a problem like this, people have to believe you know how to fix it, and that you are being transparent about the problems. I think Toyota has failed in both fo these areas.

    • 0 avatar

      Subpoena documents from GM, Ford, Honda and you will find the same things that are being shown at Toyota. All manufacturers try to minimize their costs, and prevent damaging information from coming out. All companies have skeletons that would be taken out of context and prove embarrassing by the public.

      We saw this past week a big example of how badly Toyota is being mis-treated by these various committee chairs. Townes sent a letter to the Toyota president that was leaked and seemed very damaging at first. Then we find out this week, that Townes (the democratic chair) had not only mis-represented his evident, but had selectively cut and pasted text to make it seem even worse. I saw this in the WSJ and a few other publications, but it didn’t get a lot of widespread attention. Seems like Toyota is not getting a fair shake by the media or the government.

      Also we now find out, ABC doctored the video they showed from Professor Gilberts test.

      Gilber, Kane and others are all being paid by plantiffs attorneys. They don’t seem like very independent and impartial experts to be banking our opinions on.

  • avatar

    Excellent piece.

    It’s probably a crime to enter a false NHTSA complaint. But the risk of prosecution has to be close to zero.

    Toyota ought to take a page from Bumfights. Pay homeless men to hit local libraries’ computers and make NHTSA complaints about other makes.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    I just went to the NHTSA site and made a complaint, and no, they didn’t bother asking for my VIN, which was a good thing, because my complaint was for a 1974 Ford Galaxy 500 I once owned, that jumped out of park, as all those boxes did. I want satisfaction, dang it, even if it was 35 years ago.

    I guess the raw NHTSA complaint data would need some refining, sounds like.

  • avatar

    Interesting choice of political cartoon depicting Hazel McCallion (long-time mayor of Mississauga, ON)and Carolyn Parrish (Mississauga city councillor and arch-nemesis of Hurricane Hazel). Surprisingly, it fits the subject matter quite well.

    • 0 avatar

      Burn her! She’s a witch! Burn HEEERRR!!!

    • 0 avatar

      Poor baby Toyota is being treated unfairly in a witch hunt. I am a farmer. American agricultural exports are regularly given this treatment in Japan. And the Europeans often do the same thing.

      They find some feces in meat and reject the whole shipment as contaminated for example. Or they find GMO corn in a shipment and reject it.

      In any quality control system a certain number of defects are allowed. It is imposible to achieve perfection.

      I use to be a quality control inspector years ago. And for some reason after awhile I seemed to be able to go right to the defective part and find it. Most of the rejects were bought off by the engineers in the end anyway.

      But witch hunts are a lot of fun and a good negotiating tactic. Anyone shopping for a Toyota and doesn’t use it to dicker on price or other terms is missing an opportunity.

      The Japanese and the Europeans never miss such a chance and neither should Americans.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Bertel, you ask what Toyota might have done. For me, at least, I appreciate the truth as it’s understood at any given time. For example, they might have said that something does indeed appear to be a problem, but that we’re uncertain of the cause. Then they could have said that they were examining the floor mats, the accelerator pedal, even the computers that control the engine speed via the pedal. Further, they could’ve had daily updates at their web site and advice as to their understanding of what the potential dangers were and how one might effectively deal with an emergency if one should occur. Instructions could have been downloadable at their web site. Further, they could have described how they were putting their full engineering might behind the effort to get at the truth. Full transparency, total effort. Is what they did fairly described in this way? If I’m ignorant on some matters, I’d be grateful to be told. Finally, Bertel, thanks sincerely for your outstanding work here.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Bertel, While I cannot disagree with the issue that NHTSA complaints should have VIN numbers, and the fact that Toyota complaints spiked after 2/29/09, in looking at the data dives, I don’t see junk at all, but often a remarkable degree of similarity in “twin” cars and their rates of UA complaints. Are you suggesting that Fusion and Milan owners conspire to give their cars almost exactly the same rate? And that’s just one of many examples.
    It also doesn’t begin to explain the huge spikes for the Camry in’02 and ’07; both years correspond to the introduction of new e-pedals (different designs) and software. Yet the spike drops the following year (’03, ’08). That hardly sounds like “junk” to me. There HAS to be a reason for those spikes in complaints.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. The data tell a story about a problem that is shared between Toyota and Ford, but for some reason seems to be anecdotally lethal when a Toyota is involved.

      Today’s PR world is especially challenging and much changed from even 10 years ago. By the time you try to CYA with a carefully worded statement that contains only the gentlest of truths, the twitterverse and blogosphere have dissected your problem like a neural collimator.

      Just look at what happened last week with 20 million Playstation 3 consoles containing a system chip calendar error that rendered them almost completely unusable. Sony was slow to respond, and in fact never did fix anything, leaving millions of owners to wait 24 hours for the imaginary 29th of February 2010 to elapse. They didn’t tell anyone what the issue was, and even after the issue cleared up they continued to reference it as a “Network Error”. The internet already had it solved.

      Honesty is important; you will be fact checked by a million critics.

    • 0 avatar


      I don’t think that any massive falsification has been going on in the years ago. I am convinced there is now. It’s just too inviting. The spike after the recall tells its story. Trouble is, the public doesn’t know about it. All they hear are thousands of reports. Just look at the number of “alleged” deaths. In a world where you aren’t guilty until convicted, and where one has to call a murderer an “alleged” murderer until a court has said he is, the word “alleged” is subconsciously filtered out. So the alleged deaths turn into real ones. First there were 5, then 20, then 30, now 50. It’s turning into an alleged Jonestown Massacre.

      If you look at the data before the big spike, you see:

      – There are complaints about many cars
      – Statistically, the complaint rate is ridiculously low
      – 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
      – Apparently, the numbers were so low and so inconclusive that nobody was compelled to do anything for many years
      – If they were compelled to do something, nobody ever found a problem

      I totally agree that there must something in the data. However, the quality of the data seems so low that nobody is able to come to a conclusion.

      Camry spikes in 02 and 07 warrant investigation. I’d assume there was one. I assume somebody checked why the report drop the next year. Did someone secretly fix the MY02 and MY07 cars? If not, why the sudden drop? The cars don’t vanish the next year, most of them are still around. If something was fixed the next year, the complaint numbers would fall gradually as “fixed” cars add to the installed base of “unfixed” cars.

      It is quite interesting that we never hear anything from the FARS database. That one is based on hard data, such as police accident reports, coroner reports, driver licensing files etc. Where are the investigation data from the 5, 20, 30, 50 deaths of UA?

      It is also quite interesting to note that UA appears to be an isolated American problem. Ok, so according to the NYT, the Japanese government suppresses reports. At least they had 134 in three years. 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.

      One of my jobs in the past was to improve customer satisfaction. We managed to significantly improve J.D. Power rankings. All I can say is that the quality of the car did not change. Ever since, I remain a skeptic when it comes to these reports. And compared to the NHTSA complaints, J.d. Power is highly scientific.

    • 0 avatar
      Telegraph Road

      Paul: +1. You are the voice of reason on this site. Keep it up!

    • 0 avatar

      I am not sure there was a drop. When he was talking about complaints, they are sorted by model year. If 07s were bad, maybe the next year they were fixed by new software. Or, maybe the 07s are wrapped around some tree, just kidding.

      I very much agree with Paul. If you look at the data, the spikes, how most twins are pretty close to each other in complaints, the data can’t be all bad. I would also expect the complaint volume to be low. If I had this problem, I would go to the dealer first. I am not sure I would have ever gone to the NHTSA site, especially if the dealer said they fixed it.

  • avatar

    Hmm. If only someone in government would force car companies to crack open their repair databases for public inspection. You’d put carfax out of business — anyone could see the complete service history of a car, and it would be much harder to hide problems like this Toyota one. Unfortunately we don’t have leaders like Herbert Hoover anymore who can use the government to benefit consumers anymore.

  • avatar

    So that would mean past complaints against the domestics could be just as bogus, huh? Cherrypick around THAT notion.

  • avatar

    I did an admittedly very cursory review of the vehicle acceleration complaints against Toyota vehicles in the NHTSA database by reading the complaint description. I noticed that there were many complaints about the ’07 Camry related to acceleration lag and not SUA, although there were plenty of SUA complaints. I wonder if those complaints were filtered out of any of this analysis?

    Take a look for yourselves, it makes for some interesting reading.

  • avatar

    If you can’t PROVE your complaint then don’t waste your time filing a complaint? What is Toyota or any of the manufacturers doing to help the consumer to PROVE their complaint is real? Bring your own computer codes with you before filing – yeah right.

  • avatar
    Telegraph Road

    “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.”

    Fortunately NHTSA does not share your view. There is much information in this database. It merely needs careful professional analysis.

  • avatar

    Perhaps the government could ask/compel the auto insurance companies to show their records on the SUA issue. After all, didn’t at least one such company raise this as a concern?

    While I can see a few people lying about SUA before it became an issue, and a few more lying about it after it became an issue, surely the companys’ data would be of higher quality than the NHTSA’s database.

  • avatar

    Toyota has way too many dealerships with repair facilities to even need the data from the NHTSA database. They probably have far more reliable complaints and they definitely have the owners contact information and VIN. I think we all know the NHTSA database needs much more work, but its short comings should negate what the data did show pre Sept 2009.

    Also, how would one “verify” a SUA event. I mean, would I need to stick my head out the window and get someone’s contact information while my car is speeding away? Should I follow someone in a run away car because they might need my information because I saw them speeding? I just think this verification of an event when you are the only one in a car is going to be next to impossible. This isn’t something like dexcool or oil sludge where there is physical evidence to suggest the problem. You just have to listen to what someone is saying.

    • 0 avatar


      How does an OEM deal with this?

    • 0 avatar

      Well, looks like in this case, the car was taken to the dealer for diagnostics. Perhaps they should have handled it then?

      But that is not really my point. People post dumb things on the internet. My point is that I am not sure the NHTSA database would be better than the dealers database that has lots of repair data, probably more data then the NHTSA database would ever dream of having. Why not use the bigger, better, and in house data source took lookup the data?

      People likely complain much more often to their dealers than to the NHTSA database. My guess, the NHTSA database probably has about 1/10th of the complaints that dealers have. That goes for all issues, not just UA.

    • 0 avatar

      Go to the NHTSA complaints and look up 2007 Toyota Camry: vehicle speed control:accelerator pedal. Of 31 complaints, about 1/2 of these are not for SUA, but are for hesitation during acceleration. If you read the text, some of these drivers are equating this to the recall and have only recently entered the complaint. Was this type of data filtered out of the NHTSA investigation? If one is only counting the number of accelerator pedal complaint then the results will be skewed.

    • 0 avatar

      You are actually making my point more. Toyota doesn’t need the NHTSA database. Their own database should be far superior to this one. I don’t know what the NHTSA counted as complaints, or what edmunds, or CR or any other publication counted as a complaint. It would probably be best to make a statement based on fact and not conjecture of how an organization may or may not have done tracking. Also, assuming that other manufactures also have issues with hesitation, one would think it would have also been reported and counted the same as Toyota’s. But, if you want to go verify the NHTSA database, go right ahead. Like I have said, the best information Toyota should already have in its possession.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    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.

  • avatar

    @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.

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