Criminal probe launched into Toyota's safety problems

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Wes Bucey

Prophet of Profit
On numerous occasions, we've remarked how foolish and expensive it can be to try to hide something from the feds if your organization has truly fouled up.

Almost always, the penalty for a conspiracy to cover up a crime is worse than the penalty for the original crime. In this case, the original automotive failures were probably just "screwups," not actual crimes, but Toyota has been found guilty in public opinion of trying to hide the fact of a screwup to keep from messing with their vaunted reputation for high quality.

In my opinion, Mr. Akio Toyoda should have "manned up" right away about the quality glitches in theToyota designs and then Toyota would only be worrying about the logistics of its recall instead of gearing up for a criminal investigation.


It's also a very bad idea to:

Create an email/paper-communication trail in which the company's leaders discuss their negative opinions of the governing philosophy, competence and intellect of national leaders affiliated with one of the major political parties in a crucial market-nation.

Create an email/paper-communication trail in which it's recorded in considerable detail how the company's lobbyists and lawyers have misinformed, influenced and perhaps subverted the operations of a crucial market-nation's government's consumer safety agencies, in order to generate short-term savings for the company.

Wes Bucey

Prophet of Profit
I came across an interesting item today while I was researching a completely different topic.
Apple co-founder Wozniak shirks off Prius glitch
Fri Mar 5, 7:58 pm ET

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on Friday held firm to his love for Prius cars despite what he suspects is a Toyota software problem behind sudden spikes in acceleration.

"I love my Prius," Wozniak said during on-stage banter with AT&T Tech Channel's Hugh Thompson during a geek talk show at the closing of an RSA computer security conference here.

"It's just like all the other gadgets we have... Everything today has a computer in it, so everything will fail."

Wozniak said he has bought nine Prius cars and even drove one from the Silicon Valley city of San Jose to San Francisco that day.

He said he conducted his own tests of Prius acceleration, taking his car to an open stretch of highway at dusk and then incrementally notching up the speed using the cruise control mechanism.

At "some number over 72" the car accelerated and kept picking up speed, Wozniak said.

"I wanted to see how high it would go," Wozniak said. "It wound up being unlimited so I hit the brake. The problem had to be in the software."

Wozniak advised treating cars like any other computer-based mechanisms by shutting them down at signs of trouble and then restarting them to essentially reboot systems.

"We who work in computers know there are all kinds of little failures," Wozniak said. "I love Toyota; I'm going to buy more of them. I think it is not unsafe."

His remarks came as key US lawmakers looking into Toyota's problems with deadly spikes in speed asked the company for documents backing up its position that electronic defects were not to blame.

Representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak, top Democrats on a key House committee looking into the Japanese auto giant's woes, made the request in a letter to the embattled company's top US executive.

"We do not understand the basis for Toyota's repeated assertions that it is 'confident' there are no electronic defects contributing to incidents of sudden unintended acceleration," they wrote.

The lawmakers' letter to Toyota Motor Sales USA president James Lentz said the firm has yet to share documents conclusively documenting its position that such flaws are not behind speed surges blamed for some 50 US deaths.

They also sought detailed quarterly reports on claims of sudden unintended acceleration and detailed information on the installation of brake override systems designed to slow vehicles and on so-called 'black-box' data from cars and trucks involved in accidents.

The Japanese giant recalled more than eight million cars worldwide to repair accelerator and brake defects.
So, my question is:
If a geek like Steve Wosniak can recreate a problem with Toyota cruise control, what the hell is missing in the Toyota quality toolbox that their geeks can't seem to recreate it or even acknowledge it might occur?


All cars sold in the US have event recorders tied to their computers. These record various inputs on a rolling basis, typically including gas and brake pedal positions.

Every manufacturer but Toyota and Honda uses an "open system". Data readers are available through any auto parts store, to hook up to a laptop. Accident investigators use this data constantly.

Toyota, though, encrypts their data and until this week had just one laptop in the US that could read it, in the possession of a high-ranking corporate engineer. They've consistently refused requests by police departments and other law enforcement elements to voluntarily provide data for accident investigations. In most cases where such data has been subpoenaed, they've proceeded to settle the case rather than provide data access.

Persons in the industry have had access to Toyota data over the years, in contexts other than accident investigation. Many repair shops have Toyota-controlled computer systems that can see the data, so a lot of mechanics are familiar with its output format and content. Toyota's systems work much like everyone else's, except for the encryption. Logically, this data capture system would provide clear diagnoses of what happened in most of the unintended-acceleration fatal accidents, at least for older-model Toyotas.

If the data would show that 98% of the accidents were due to driver error, or floor mats, or sticky gas pedals, why wouldn't Toyota have been eager to reveal it and talk about it?

The data eventually is going to come out. Toyota could settle civil suits with big enough checks. They can't escape subpoenas from the New York grand jury inquiry and the Congressional investigation the same way.

If the data instead shows that Toyota has known since the earliest unintended-acceleration complaints that their computer controls are unreliable and can go into modes that prevent even an experienced state trooper from shutting the car off or preventing it from going out of control--what next? In that case, Toyota would seem to have been engaged for years in an extended conspiracy to hide the facts, including lying to the public and providing untruthful testimony under oath.

To make this more complicated, apparently Toyota changed the programming of their event recorders two model years ago, so as to stop capturing gas and brake pedal positions. The sensors are still there, and the program still runs...but in a recent court case where Toyota eventually provided accident data after they were unable to get the subpoena quashed, those two channels of data show in the output as "off". Why would Toyota make that programming change?

Wes Bucey

Prophet of Profit
One thing I love about USA laws - it's almost impossible for even the richest corporation to outspend the US government to delay coming to trial. As a businessman, I was loathe to spend even $10,000 to sue anyone unless I expected to get at least 20 times that in return (juries are notoriously fickle.) But the US government will spend $1,000,000 to prosecute some drunk who piddles on the steps of the Capitol and give him a $100 fine. Can you imagine what they'll spend going after any foreign company that insults the Congress by refusing to divulge information that industry specialists assure us is already in the company's possession?

Some attorneys are going to get very wealthy while Toyota drags its feet.

Wes Bucey

Prophet of Profit

Totally amazing to me how all of a sudden so many self-proclaimed "Toyota Experts" are crawling out of the woodwork.

Actually, it shouldn't be. In the thread on ethics
we acknowledge the fact fear does and should play a large part in a person's decision to be a whistleblower.

For years, I have been reporting on my colleague in Tokyo and his statements that many many quality glitches get buried and whitewashed by a cabal of corporate and government bigwigs throughout Japan. Even when scandals erupt there, they are rarely reported here in the USA. Japan has a kind of symbiotic relationship between government and big corporations and the average consumer has been left out of the equation. So, as the story unfolds, more and more insiders, previously afraid for well being of families and careers, have become emboldened to come forward and tell what they have been afraid to tell for so long.

Here is an excerpt from a NY times article which was in this morning's editions. The full article can be found for a short time at this link.
March 5, 2010
Millions of Toyotas Recalled, None in Japan


TOKYO — Feeling her Toyota Mark X station wagon lurch forward at a busy intersection, Masako Sakai slammed on the brakes. But the pedal “had gone limp,” she said. Downshifting didn’t seem to work either.
“I tried everything I could think of,” Mrs. Sakai, 64, said, as she recently recalled the accident that happened six months ago.
Her car surged forward nearly 3,000 feet before slamming into a Mercedes Benz and a taxi, injuring drivers in both those vehicles and breaking Mrs. Sakai’s collarbone.
As shaken as she was by the accident, Mrs. Sakai says she was even more surprised by what happened after. She says that Toyota — from her dealer to headquarters — has not responded to her inquiries, and Japanese authorities have been indifferent to her concerns as a consumer.
Mrs. Sakai says the Tokyo Metropolitan Police urged her to sign a statement saying that she pressed the accelerator by mistake — something she strongly denies. She says the police told her she could have her damaged car back to get it repaired if she made that admission. She declined.
The police say it was a misunderstanding and that they kept her car to carry out their investigation.
But veterans of Japan’s moribund consumer rights movement say that Mrs. Sakai, like many Japanese, is the victim of a Japanese establishment that values Japanese business over Japanese consumers, and the lack of consumer protections here.
“In Japan, there is a phrase: if something smells, put a lid on it,” said Shunkichi Takayama, a Tokyo-based lawyer who has handled complaints related to Toyota vehicles.
Toyota has recalled eight million cars outside Japan because of unexpected acceleration and other problems, but has insisted that there are no systemic problems with its cars sold in Japan. The company recalled the Prius for a brake problem earlier this year.
Critics say many companies benefit from Japan’s weak consumer protections. (The country has only one full-time automobile recall investigator, supported by 15 others on limited contracts.)
In a case in the food industry, a meat processor called Meat Hope collapsed in 2008 after revelations that it had mixed pork, mutton and chicken bits into products falsely labeled as pure ground beef, all under the noses of food inspectors.
A 2006 police inquiry into gas water heaters made by the manufacturer Paloma found that a defect had resulted in the deaths of 21 people over 10 years from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Paloma initially insisted that users had tampered with the heaters’ safety device; the company ultimately admitted that the heaters were at fault — and that executives had been aware of a potential problem for more than a decade. Executives are now being charged with professional negligence, and a court verdict is due in May.
When it comes to cars, the rapid growth of the auto industry here and of car ownership in the 1960s and ’70s was accompanied by a spate of fatal accidents. A consumer movement soon emerged among owners of these defective vehicles.
The most active was the Japan Automobile Consumers Union, led by Fumio Matsuda, a former Nissan engineer often referred to as the Ralph Nader of Japan. But the automakers fought back with a campaign discrediting the activists as dangerous agitators. Mr. Matsuda and his lawyer were soon arrested and charged with blackmail. They fought the charges to Japan’s highest court, but lost.
Now, few people are willing to take on the country’s manufacturers at the risk of arrest, Mr. Matsuda said in a recent interview. “The state sided with the automakers, not the consumers,” he said.
It has become difficult for drivers to access even the most elementary data or details on incidents of auto defects, says Hiroko Isomura, an executive at the National Association of Consumer Specialists and a former adviser to the government on auto recalls. “Unfortunately, the Automobile Consumers Union was shut down,” she said. “No groups like that exist any more.”
For the government to order a recall, it must prove that automobiles do not meet national safety standards, which is difficult to do without the automakers’ cooperation. Most recalls are done on a voluntary basis without government supervision.
An examination of transport ministry records by The New York Times found that at least 99 incidents of unintended acceleration or surge in engine rotation had been reported in Toyotas since 2001, of which 31 resulted in some form of collision.
Critics like Mr. Takayama charge that the number of reports of sudden acceleration in Japan would be bigger if not for the way many automakers in Japan, helped by reticent regulators, have kept such cases out of official statistics, and out of the public eye.
In 2008, about 6,600 accidents and 30 deaths were blamed on drivers of all kinds of vehicles mistakenly pushing the accelerator instead of the brakes, according to the Tokyo-based Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis.
But Mr. Takayama has long argued that number includes cases of sudden acceleration. “It has become the norm here to blame the driver in almost any circumstance,” he said.
“Regulators have long accepted the automakers’ assertions at face value,” said Yukiko Seko, a retired lawmaker of the Japan Communist Party who pursued the issue in Parliament in 2002.
The police strongly deny pressuring drivers to accept the blame in any automobile accident. “All investigations into auto accidents are conducted in a fair and transparent way,” the Tokyo Metropolitan Police said in response to an inquiry by The Times.
Figuring out who is really to blame can be hard because of Japan’s lack of investigators.
Japan’s leniency has also meant that automakers here have routinely ignored even some of the safety standards for cars sold in the United States. Until the early 1990s, Japanese cars sold domestically lacked the reinforcing bars in car walls required of all vehicles sold in the United States. Critics say skimping on safety was one way automakers generated profits in Japan to finance their export drive abroad.
A handful of industry critics like Mr. Takayama and Ms. Seko have, over the years, voiced concern over cases of sudden acceleration in Toyota and other cars in Japan. Under scrutiny especially after the introduction of automatic transmission cars in the late 1980s, Toyota recalled five models because a broken solder was found in its electronics system, which could cause unintended acceleration.
In 1988 the government ordered a nationwide study and tests, and urged automakers to introduce a fail-safe system to make sure the brakes always overrode the accelerator. This month, more than 20 years later, Toyota promised to install a brake override system in all its new models.
Meanwhile, Toyota maintains a large share on the Japanese market, with about 30 percent. The Prius gas-electric hybrid remained the top-selling car in Japan in February despite the automaker’s global recalls, figures released Thursday showed.
But Japan’s pro-industry postwar order may be changing.
In 2009, in one of the last administrative moves by the outgoing government, a new consumer affairs agency was set up to better police defective products, unsafe foods and mislabeling.
The new government’s transport minister, Seiji Maehara, has been outspoken against Toyota.
He said last week that he would push to revamp the country’s oversight of the auto industry, including adding more safety investigators. The government has also said it was examining 38 complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas reported from 2007 through 2009, as well as 96 cases in cars produced by other automakers.
Toyota continues to deny there are problems with unintended acceleration in Japan.
“Yes, there have been incidents of unintended acceleration in Japan,” Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota’s quality chief, said at a news conference last week. “But we believe we have checked each incident and determined that there was no problem with the car,” he said.
Mrs. Sakai said she has called and visited her Toyota dealer, as well as Toyota Motor itself, but has not received a response.
A Toyota spokeswoman, Mieko Iwasaki, confirmed that the automaker had been contacted about complaints of a crash caused by sudden acceleration in September. She said, however, that she could not divulge details of how the company handled each case.
“We are investigating the accident alongside the police, and are cooperating fully with investigations,” she said. “Anything we find, we will tell the police.”
Makiko Inoue and Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed from Tokyo.
To my mind, what is truly amazing is anyone continuing to blindly defend Toyota until all the facts are in. If, as many suspect, Toyota executives willfully disregarded information their products had safety hazards, will those same defenders make as great an effort to share in the blame for helping to belittle folks who claim safety hazards exist?

I, for one, am extremely suspicious of what I interpret as "stonewalling" by Toyota executives in refusing to offer full transparency of their process and results. (I'm kind of reminded of the philanderer who, when caught in flagrante delicto by his wife, exclaimed, "Who are you going to believe - me or your lying eyes?")

These executives may be innocent of actual criminal negligence, but their actions or nonactions have done a lot to destroy the value and reputation of a major corporation.


These executives may be innocent of actual criminal negligence
Or--in the US, under multiple state and federal laws--maybe not.

If I was Jim Lentz, for instance, I'd already have my personal lawyer on a specific situational retainer, and providing continuous guidance on what not to say. Although Lentz may already be in over his head.

Wes Bucey

Prophet of Profit
Or--in the US, under multiple state and federal laws--maybe not.

If I was Jim Lentz, for instance, I'd already have my personal lawyer on a specific situational retainer, and providing continuous guidance on what not to say. Although Lentz may already be in over his head.
Maybe he DOES have a lawyer on retainer, telling what to say and not say. Perhaps he's aiming for a "diminished capacity" defense.;)
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