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Congress v. Toyota: Civil Melee Between Reps and Execs Pocked by Few Tantrums Though Some Grandstandings

toyota recalls

by Gunnar Heinrich ::: img CSPAN ::: Toyota Recall Congressional Hearings

AKIO Toyoda, grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, Toyota’s founder with (almost) the same name stepped deep into America’s body politic today as an arena of glum Capitol Hill spectators, reporters, attorneys, Toyota executives, translators, victims, independent experts, all took part in proceedings before the members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Mr. Toyoda apologized, suggesting that Toyota’s rapid growth had eclipsed its ability to effectively govern itself thereby leading to the massive recalls over instances of unintended acceleration that date back to 2001.

“Toyota’s priorities have traditionally been the following: first, safety; second, quality; third, volume. These priorities became confused,” he said in a written (English) statement that broadcasted pitch-perfect Japanese humility.

“For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well.”

As many as 34 people may have died because of a fault that may be linked to an electrical malfunction and not a “sticky pedal” or misplaced floor mat.

Throughout the afternoon, Mr. Toyoda, a middle aged man with black hair and spectacles, gave conciliatory, if restrained testimony through a demure female translator. His North American president, Yoshimi Inaba, spoke for himself and sometimes on Mr. Toyoda’s behalf in rhythmic, lightly accented English.

akio toyoda

Their testimony was preceded by NHTSA’s Ray Lahood who took a more combative stance with congressional representatives. At one point, Mr. Lahood growled that his agency was a “lapdog for nobody.” Some members had questioned the “negotiations” that NHTSA held with Toyota over previous, limited recalls.

But the majority of the time and focus was given to the Japanese executives, who, clad conservatively in gray and blue, sat grim faced. For them, it was an acrimonious afternoon subject to humiliation- as such political trials can be – but it was not a “blasting”, “roasting”, or “withering hurricane” as other reports have described.

Tempers rarely flared.

Indeed, it seemed like some representatives were having difficulty putting hard questions to their excruciatingly polite Japanese witnesses as each of their inquiries were returned with answers that were modest, carefully weighed and earnestly put…if ultimately unenlightening.

yoshimi inaba

Mr. Inaba at one point responded to one congressman’s query about why Toyota’s North American operations were initially unaware of European recalls by saying that, “shamefully,” he didn’t know the answer. When asked technical questions, he correctly noted that he was but an “amateur” in comparison to Toyota’s engineers and wasn’t well qualified to respond.

Some representatives remarked on how “impressed” they were that scion of Toyota had deigned to take part in the congressional hearings. Though Pennsylvanian rep. Paul Kanjorski, a man perhaps old enough to remember the second World War, remarked aloud to a colleague from Indiana that “they’re killing our people.”

Some of the day’s most heated remarks came from D.C.’s own selfless rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton when she demanded to know whether her own Toyota Camry Hybrid was safe.

The assembly burst into laughter as Mr. Inaba tried to reassure the irate congresswoman that her Camry Hybrid wasn’t part of the recall. She then batted back and forth with Mr. Inaba on what he meant by referring to her car as “American”.

eleanor holmes norton

“Doesn’t it have his name?” She asked, nodding to the Japanese CEO.

Sadly, there were few reps whose questions amounted to clearly articulated points of inquiry. The sharpest questions came from those who cited Toyota’s internal memo which claimed success in negotiating a limited recall with NHTSA that saved the company $100 million.

Representative Jackie Speier waxed incredulous that neither Mr. Toyoda nor Mr. Inaba didn’t know the substance of corporate meetings with NHTSA and demanded to see documents pertaining to those meetings.

Former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, echoed the skepticism and demanded a second round of inquiry.

Geoff Davis, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and a representative for Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District which is home to a Toyota assembly plant stopped by to comment.

geoff davis

Without acknowledging the victims nor the massive recalls, the congressman displayed a certain bias as with a single rhetorical stroke he blasted the inflammatory nature of the hearing.

He then read a prepared written statement that sounded like a paid-for advertisement for Toyota; offering that Toyota was a model corporate citizen, faithful contributor to his election fund community, and a large employer in his district.

Needless to say, it’s doubtful whether Americans’ interests were competently served this afternoon. The hearing was a largely ceremonial process, though without any noticeable bowing.

If nothing else, for the moment, both sides of the story were heard and recorded before all involved parties head for court.

Audi and The Case of Pedal + Media “Misapplication”

audi 5000 sudden acceleration

by Gunnar Heinrich ::: img E.T. via IMCDB.org ::: Audi 5000 Sudden Acceleration

IN one of the auto industry’s more sordid moments, and in circumstances that mirror Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall, 24 years ago Audi suffered the worst public relations crisis to befall any car company since Ralph Nader’s damming exposé on the Chevy Corvair in his 60s polemic, Unsafe at Any Speed.

Thousands of Audi owners sought damages – real or imagined – in nationwide class action lawsuits against the German car maker. Their case claimed that (the 80s) Audi 5000 suffered from an electrical/mechanical defect that led to sudden, uncontrollable, full throttle acceleration.

In one achingly tragic incident, a mother lost control of her 5000 sedan while reversing and ran over her six year old daughter. She sued Audi for $48 million.

By the time CBS’ 60 Minutes ran the story on runaway Audis  in 1986 (including the mother-daughter tragedy) that featured a rigged-scenario that purported to highlight through simulation the defect in an Audi 5000 that lead to sudden acceleration (not dissimilar to ABC’s recent report methods on the Toyota Avalon) Audi nearly went bust.

Sales dropped from 74K in 1984 to just 12K by 1991. And, as it happens, Audi may not have been at fault.

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research re-posted a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece published on Dec. 18, 1989 which highlighted how the Audi lawsuits and media frenzy provided an instance where public hysteria and faulty journalism nearly destroyed a car company while making a mockery of the judicial system.

“In America, where we can’t attach blame to anyone whose name doesn’t end with Inc., [the source of the problem] was called “pedal misapplication.” And unsurprisingly, it’s not just Audi drivers who commit it.

So, in the long run, the truth does come out. In the short run, the lawyers swoop in. Most soon recognized that they couldn’t prove any defect in the Audi’s engine or transmission. But our liability system today is a master of the bait and switch—the switch was to “pedal misdesign.”

The article goes on to suggest that drivers who were unfamiliar with Audi’s closely positioned brake – throttle pedal design likely confused the gas pedal for the brake pedal and that when Shift-Lock park override was introduced to all cars, the number of such runaway incidents with Audis and other marques plummeted.

In the end, it was a lose-lose situation for Audi and its aggrieved customers.

Hyperbole took its toll on the automaker’s sales while some of the victims failed to collect on damages. Case in point: the mother who was featured in the 60 Minutes story did not win her case. According to the WSJ:

“[I]nvestigating police officer and witnesses at the scene testified that after the accident the distraught mother had admitted that her foot had slipped off the brake. The jury found no defect in the car.”

Is there a lesson that can be applied to the current Toyota hearings, recalls, and impending lawsuits? Yes: in the search for truth, prudence is the best application of public inquiry.

Toyota Recall: Welcome to Washington

capitol rotunda

By Gunnar Heinrich ::: img DOD

WHAT did Toyota know? And when did they know it?

Toyota’s recalls and the brouhaha that’s beset Washington seem to echo the political machinations of another era. However, instead of an irate congress fueled by the highest octane possible – populist anger – looking to oust a truculent President Nixon, it’s Toyota who congress have set their sights on.

In recent days, there have been press leaks suggesting that ToMoCo’s executive staff is feeling somewhat bruised and bewildered. Their view, apparently, is that the company’s bad reception in DC is part of a political climate that’s  “not industry friendly” in the wake of the banking crisis and a lugging economy.

It seems Toyota’s execs have feared an American backlash for some time.  And now, the accelerator/brake recall issue represents the sum of their fears.

Here’s the reality: Washington’s politicos are equal opportunity roasters.

In a capital where allies and enemies are exchanged, discarded, or dispatched at the turn of a news cycle, no one person or business is immune from the bloodlust of public inquiry. Couple that aspect with the frenzy of election season, and we’re in for some world class grand standing at the upcoming hearings.

Toyota’s fears of anti-Japanese, anti-globalization, pro-Motown sentiment amount to extraneous sub-plots to the day’s central story: “substantial product hazard” to use inside-the-Beltway parlance -or media fueled public backlash due to deaths resulting from many faulty cars.

We must remember that in the late 90s, such was the public’s outcry over the capsized Explorers that both Republicans and Democrats joined in a bi-partisan barbecue at the expense of both Ford and Firestone (owned by Japanese Bridgestone). Both companies were skewered relentlessly and then fined over the deaths and injuries that were linked to Explorers riding on faulty Firestone Wilderness AT tyres.

In the coming days, a lot of emphasis is going to be placed on when Toyota knew about sudden acceleration problems and what corrective steps the company took and in what time frame.

Preliminary reports suggest that Toyota may have known of faults as far back as 2001 – when the first drive-by-wire systems went to market and in subsequent years the car maker may have “negotiated” out of large recalls over the same issue.

Lexus Tarnished: HS250h Recalled For Brake Issues Due To “Software Glitch”

lexus hs250h

By Gunnar Heinrich :: IMG :: Lexus HS250h at Detroit Auto Show via WeBlogSurf

LEXUS’ HS250h shares its hybrid heart ‘n soul along with plenty of components with its more mainstream eco-packaged Toyota Prius. Now, it will share in a recall over brakes that “fail” over rough terrain, too.

Cryptic as such an explanation may seem, there have been hundreds of complaints on both sides of the Pacific which has finally led Toyota management to bow deeply (again) and take one to the chin by shelling out for an expensive recall (again).

The BBC reports:

The brake problem was thought to affect about 270,000 Prius models that were sold in the US and Japan starting last May.

Toyota blames a software glitch and says it has already fixed vehicles sold this year.

Hybrid Sai, sold only in Japan, and Lexus HS250h, sold globally, would also be recalled, the company said on Tuesday.

Japanese authorities originally led the consumer advocacy charge, but, not to be cut to the quick on matters of consumer safety, Uncle Sam’s NHTSA has also announced its own investigation on brake issues related to Priuses and Lexus HS’s.

The L-badge will never be the same.

[Source: BBC]

Cruel Joke of the Day: Toyota’s Unintended Acceleration

toyota joke

By Gunnar Heinrich | IMG via email (not actual ad)

MOVING forward, unintended, is a major source of Toyota’s current recall frustrations. So, leave it to some smart a$$ to circulate a joke that kicks the auto giant when it’s down.

Yours received the above fake advert via email recently.

As snarky as this macabre spoof may seem, there are reports to suggest that Toyota execs knew about the gas-pedal-leading-to-firey-crash issue; possibly as far back as 2005.

So, kick away folks and keep the jokes commin’.

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