Lost In Translation: Toyota Threatens To Sue CNN Over Memogate

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

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.”

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3 of 34 comments
  • Unhittable curveball Unhittable curveball on Mar 02, 2012

    I’m sure CNN will win a Pulitzer for this masterpiece of investigative journalism. Sure worked for Scott Templeton.

  • Grinchsmate Grinchsmate on Mar 04, 2012

    Wouldn’t the car have stopped if it had adaptive cruise control? Shouldn’t the story have been about how wonderful it is Toyota is developing a system to prevent drivers from running themselves into walls?

    • Spw Spw on Mar 04, 2012

      it did... it stopped in front of the barrier, then they tried to induce failure in gas pedal to see if it will over-ride the radar sensor that has stopped the car... it didnt. if anything they should commend the toyota for testing their systems.

  • Gemcitytm Why does it seem every EV seems to have ridiculous amounts of power? Yes, I know they're heavier than ICE models but who on earth needs 708 HP? How about a nice, compact EV with, say, 250 HP and 350-400 mile range? Is that impossible with today's tech? (I currently drive a 148 HP Mazda 3 ICE and it has all the get-up-and-go I need.)
  • CEastwood I could have bought one of these if I had the cash in 76 for $1000 white , red interior , 3 speed stick with whitewalls/ wire hubcaps - it was mint and gone a day after I saw it . But the real catch that got away was an all original 69 green Camaro RS convertible 327 4 speed with 46K on the clock for 1800 that I saw a few months earlier . Young and poor was not a fun place to be !
  • KOKing I'm in an emissions check only state, and I'd trade that away for a safety check all day.
  • Bd2 The hybrid powertrain in the Sportage and Tucson are the ones to get.H/K should discontinue the base NA 2.5L powertrain and just build more of the hybrid.In the future, maybe offer a 2nd, more powerful hybrid (the hybrid 2.5) which will first arrive with the next Telluride/Palisade.Kia also needs to redo the front fascia for the Sportage's refresh.
  • The Oracle I say let the clunkers stay on the roads.