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The Evolving Public Narrative
of Unintended Acceleration


Report redactions.

"So let's be clear..."
-Secretary Ray LaHood
February 8, 2011

Repeating the Message

The impressive conclusion that "the safety of Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System (ETCS) has been repeatedly confirmed by multiple independent evaluations" has been carefully nurtured by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as by Toyota itself.

Multiple pronouncements have been made by the Secretary of Transportation and by NHTSA to establish and reinforce the public perception that "the best and brightest engineers" from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) exhaustively searched for an electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas but never found any.

A report by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies (NAS) for its Study of Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration is also invoked by NHTSA to promote NHTSA's exoneration of Toyota's electronic throttle control systems as "fully justified."

Omitting the Sample Size

But how many vehicles in NASA's exhaustive search for an electronic-based cause of unintended, high-speed acceleration actually had experienced an incident of unintended, high-speed acceleration?

An investigative article published in Corporate Counsel has disclosed the answer more than two years after the NASA report was made public. Corporate Counsel's investigation revealed that NASA specialists specifically responsible for the inspection, analysis, simulation and testing of potentially suspect component parts in its investigation were never given access to components from any vehicle that had experienced unintended, high-speed acceleration. Not even one. The sample size was zero. In fact, the Corporate Counsel article states, "Some of the scientists on this team wouldn't sign NASA's final report."

Using NASA's own definition of unintended, high-speed acceleration, the number of vehicles tested by NASA for Electro-Magnetic Interference/Electro-Magnetic Compatibility is almost as surprising. Our analysis of data underlying the NASA report (received through a Freedom of Information Act request) shows that the number of such vehicles was precisely one.

There is also nothing in the publicly available record to establish that NHTSA ever informed the National Academy's committee that NHTSA's own engineers had themselves witnessed and video recorded an instance of unintended acceleration not caused by floor mats, sticky pedals, or driver error. NHTSA apparently never presented this evidence to the NAS committee and they attempted to keep it secret from the public as well. If the NAS committee knew of the incident from the published New York Times account, the available public record does not show any inquiry to NHTSA about it.

For these reasons, the often repeated references by Toyota and NHTSA to multiple, independent investigations and exhaustive evaluations are very troubling. NASA's dismissals of the potential importance of resistive shorts discovered in compromised, safety-critical, control systems is further undermined by the unconvincing and unsupported rationale that too many consumers complained about unintended acceleration compared to a count of warranty repair claims in data submitted to NHTSA by consultants to Toyota.

Targeting Critics for Destruction

The same investigation by Corporate Counsel also exposed Toyota's tactics to influence the popular narrative of unintended acceleration by disparaging Toyota's critics. Poll-tested, character assassination campaigns targeting a professor of automotive technology as well as a consumer safety advocate who expressed doubts about the safety of critical control systems in Toyota vehicles were already well known. However, the governing strategy disclosed in the Corporate Counsel article was revealing, quoting an email from a Toyota PR manager that is written with the undertone of gangsterism: "Like you said, let's go with an intention of destroying each individual person's ability to oppose us, one by one. (To do or not to do is a separate question.)"

NHTSA also has engaged in the public disparagement of "groups that are continuing to raise the specter of potential electronic issues." Even though it is now known that NHTSA's own investigators had experienced and recorded an incident of unintended acceleration in a Toyota Prius evidently caused by the vehicle's electronics.

It is very unfortunate that among the "groups" denigrated by NHTSA are the consumers whose safety NHTSA is charged to protect. Long after the highly publicized recalls involving floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals, consumers who have experienced unintended acceleration continue to express their concerns that these incidents may have an electronics-based cause.

Another group continuing to raise the "specter" of electronic issues must also include any scientists who insist on actually seeing the still secret, Toyota warranty data NHTSA and NASA cite as a basis for their conclusions about unintended acceleration. It is hard to understand why NHTSA expects that its judgments should be accepted by the entire scientific community when the agency refuses to allow access to all of the data necessary to replicate its (taxpayer funded) results. Replication is at the heart of the scientific method. Efforts to prevent the replication of research results are anti-scientific.

Conclusion

In its response to the Corporate Counsel investigation, Toyota claims that, "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.'"

Yet this declaration raises the same questions as do the pronouncements about the supposedly thorough and authoritative nature of the original NHTSA-NASA studies. What were the "driving conditions" and study protocols under which these "subject vehicles" were studied? How many vehicles were studied? For how long? For how many miles? For that matter, what were the actual results?

Repeated claims about the thorough and exhaustive nature of NASA's search for evidence of an electronics based cause of high-speed, unintended acceleration - founded on a sample size of zero or one - are baseless and misleading. So-called "acknowledgements" by plaintiffs' counsel, involving an unknown methodology and an unknown sample size, are just as scientifically unacceptable and equally unpersuasive. This is particularly true since at least one unintended acceleration event is known to have been witnessed and video recorded under driving conditions by NHTSA's own engineers.

Acknowledgement

We note for the record that Quality Control Systems Corp. has undertaken research projects sponsored by law firms representing plaintiffs in litigation with Toyota Motor Company. We note also that we have undertaken research projects sponsored by attorneys representing automakers in litigation as well as their insurers. This commentary is not sponsored by anyone.

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Unintended Lessons in Quality Control: Toyota Motor Corp.

Keeping Secrets about NASA's "Toyota Study" of Unintended Acceleration

Covering Up Redactions in NASA's "Toyota Study" of Unintended Acceleration

Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control Systems

Toyota and Lexus Speed Control Complaints

Sudden Unintended Steering in Toyota Corollas

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