Compelling new evidence appears to substantiate charges, made in this column and elsewhere, that Toyota has suppressed evidence that electronics could be a possible cause of unintended acceleration (UA), responsible for many deaths, including San Diegans Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law.
Much of this is discussed in an article by David Hechler at Corporate Counsel at the law.com website, “Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration?”
The article cites a panel of independent experts that now doubt Toyota’s explanation that floor mats or sticky accelerator pedals explain the surge in complaints. “Instead, they believe precisely what Toyota has for many years steadfastly denied: that the problem is rooted in electronics,” the article states.
The panel’s opinion has been reinforced by the disclosure of internal Toyota documents that directly contradict testimony given to Congress by several key Toyota executives. Hechler quotes excerpts from these documents to make his case. Some are included below, along with additional quotes taken from the same set of documents.
For example, Jim Lentz, the CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., testified that "We are confident that no problems exist in our electronic throttle systems in our vehicles,” and that “We have done extensive testing on this system, and we have never found a malfunction that caused unintended acceleration.”
Takeshi Uchiyamada, then executive vice president and chief engineer and now named as Toyota's next chairman, said in his prepared statement submitted to the Senate Energy, Commerce, and Transportation Committee in March 2010: “I want to be absolutely clear: As a result of our extensive testing, we do not believe sudden unintended acceleration because of a defect in our ETCS has ever happened” (emphasis added), and “We have testing data that confirms its reliability for all the markets in which we trade worldwide.”
Meanwhile, a few days later, senior Toyota electronics engineer Takashi Ogawa, in stark contrast to the above testimony, admitted under questioning by House investigators that there is no test in existence that can conclusively prove UA cannot occur: “It may be hard to understand, but there is no particular or special testing that would directly prove that there is no unintended acceleration.” Instead, he said, the engineers demonstrate UA prevention by cobbling together proof through testing under “all conceivable conditions” and to confirm it is “correctly realized as a design.”
But Toyota’s R&D chief Masatami Takimoto contradicted his own engineers, admitting in a March 2010 memo that every conceivable condition had not been anticipated: “When this Electronic Throttle Control System (ETCS) system was inspected, didn’t we fail to anticipate malfunctions such as an accelerator pedal itself remaining open?”
The company’s problems with its quality control activities were pointed out by vice president Katsuhiko Sakakibara in a memo dated February 2010: “practices that prevent quality verification are now proliferating everywhere worldwide” (emphasis in original).
And again in testimony, in response to a question by then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), Uchiyamada stated flatly, “There was not a single case where we could identify that the ETC defect was the cause of the unwanted or unintended acceleration.”
The claim was completely disproved in the same hearing by a description of a Camry owner named Shepard whose car had a UA incident. As described in the hearing transcript, Shepard’s own mechanic later found an accelerator pedal sensor failure. This documented failure of the ETCS was reported to Toyota at the time of the incident, in 2004.
These newly revealed documents also tell a story of what was happening behind the scenes among Toyota’s engineers, further contradicting the executive testimony. The engineers admit to electronics causes of UA events in the field.
In one email, a Japanese engineer based in Toyota’s U.S. offices requests help from colleagues in Japan to fix a “software bug” in the Tundra that causes the truck to behave in ways that “drivers consider UA.” His colleague in Japan responded that this problem would have to wait because they were too busy.
Another document is a Technical Field Report from Toyota’s Cyprus dealer written in January 2009. The dealer pleads: “… Engine revs stick at 6000 rpm without any reason. This issue occurs without any warning and at random cases. … (there were) two big car accidents in which the drivers miraculously escaped injuries. … the vehicle accelerated in an uncontrolled manner … more than 5 times … the Accelerator Sensor Assembly was replaced. … This issue could cost lives!!”
In another communication, a driver reported a Tundra zooming to 80 miles per hour, uncommanded, with ineffective brakes. When the truck was fixed, the technician noted, “short (circuit), insulation defective,” and replaced the gas pedal sensor assembly. The same document lists 547 pedal position electronic sensor assemblies that were replaced to fix speed control malfunctions that had been attributed to a mechanical “sticky pedal.”
Japan engineers also noted or investigated many varied electronics-related causes of UA and speed control issues. They include short circuits in the pedal position sensor, cruise control, poor wiring connectors, electromagnetic interference (EMI), and voltage irregularities. Numerous times throughout the documents, the electronic Engine Computer Unit (ECU) is mentioned as a possible cause for vehicle behavior that they could not understand.
Another document shows that Toyota investigated speed control issues in the car of Crown Prince Naruhito in 2008, and admitted the cause was the endless problems with the ETCS’s many components.
In spite of all of the internal discussions about electronics, Toyota stuck with its public story through its PR campaigns, advertising, sworn testimony and in its recalls, that UA is caused by floor mats and sticky pedals.
When evidence surfaced that there were other, electrical-related causes, and independent experts advanced plausible theories, Toyota never changed its public story. In several cases Toyota representatives disparaged these experts and even sued.
So where did these documents come from? They were provided to Congress by Betsy Benjaminson, an Israel-based translator who was hired to translate Toyota documents used by law firms working for Toyota in their litigation. Most are marked “secret” and “confidential” and, as a set, they disprove many of Toyota’s public pronouncements.
Benjaminson says she has gone public because she considers this to be a situation that involves life and death. She says she saw with her own eyes many hundreds of documents that revealed important details of just how much the company knew, and when the company knew it.
The documents were provided last year to the staff of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, who has been investigating this issue. Sen. Grassley's office said the documents were reviewed by experts who found them to be inconclusive.
When asked about the new documents, Toyota issued a statement, saying, "At Toyota, our core values have always been to pursue the highest levels of safety and quality and to continuously improve. To conclude otherwise based on a few handpicked documents, including internal deliberations about quality improvements or descriptions of prototype system testing, is misleading and simply wrong.
"At no time has anyone ever put forth any reliable scientific evidence of an alleged electronic defect in our vehicles that could cause unintended acceleration (UA). In fact, despite more than two years of unprecedented discovery and full access to our proprietary source code, plaintiffs’ counsel in federal multidistrict litigation acknowledged that they were 'unable to reproduce a UA in a subject vehicle under driving conditions,'" Toyota said in the statement.
Yet the documents indicate that the engineers consider the electronics to be a possible cause.
But it’s not only Toyota that has tried to dismiss electronics as one of the causes of UA. When the root causes of UA remained a mystery, despite all the Congressional hearings, Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, enlisted the help of NASA engineers to perform an analysis of Toyota’s electronic throttle control system. But before their investigation could be completed, LaHood exonerated Toyota, based on NASA not having yet found conclusive evidence of a specific flaw in Toyota’s system design.
But subsequently, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, which administered the NASA study, admitted that no system safety analysis was performed. According to engineering experts, such as those quoted in the Corporate Counsel article, LaHood’s sound bite summarizing NASA’s findings as exonerating Toyota, was inaccurate and misleading.
In fact, a source that I spoke to within the government with knowledge of this work at NASA, said NASA engineers were quite incensed at LaHood’s statement, particularly because they were not given the tools or evidence to conduct the investigation. I would not be surprised if NASA eventually comes forward with evidence that shows some electronic anomalies.
While the documents don’t show that the company fully understands the exact electronic failure mechanisms leading to UA, they offer compelling evidence of misrepresentations of the company’s knowledge about the many kinds of electronics-related causes of UA that occurred and could not be attributed to mats, sticky pedals or driver error.
Other memos and emails show a lack of understanding of the true causes of UA resulted from Toyota’s failure to do a thorough job in the design and quality testing of the cars in question.
One admission comes in a memo from Toyota’s then-R&D chief, Masatami Takimoto, written to Uchiyamada and Sasaki who were about to testify in the Senate.
“This is Takimoto. I read in the newspaper that you were both called to testify in the Senate. I think the cause of all this trouble is that we did not complete the vehicle development process sufficiently. There is no excuse and I am sorry.”
Meanwhile, Uchiyamada insists in an email to a subordinate prior to his testimony: “We are severely tortured to no end, aren’t we? We may have made technical errors and our response may have been slow, but all we can do is keep the faith that Toyota is not lying or being deceitful (Toyota is not that kind of company).”
Well, is it, or not?
On Feb. 15, 2010 in this column I wrote, “In the case of Toyota, its recent problems are not that they occurred, but that the company failed to take quick action to fix them once they were discovered. Instead Toyota risked its reputation, built up painstakingly over five decades, by minimizing the seriousness of these issues, by not being forthcoming, and by covering them up.” Based on this new evidence, that remains true.
My conclusion is that there were, and hopefully still are, dedicated, hard-working engineers within the company trying to find the electronic causes of UA. There is nothing that indicates that Toyota has found an answer and has covered it up. Its fault has been in providing false reassurances to the public that electronics can be ruled out and the causes of the problem have been identified.
Toyota executives let their engineers down, as well as owners and future buyers of Toyota automobiles who continue to face risk. And sadly, our own government was complicit, as well. Most importantly, Toyota owners, including myself and my family, should not accept the assurances from Toyota executives that electronics is not a cause.