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

Report redactions.

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

It's official...

On February 8, 2011, the Secretary of Transportation, Mr. Ray LaHood, announced that a comprehensive study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) demonstrated that problems of unintended acceleration in Toyotas were due to mechanical, not electrical failures.

Mr. LaHood stated, "Today, we can say clearly and affirmatively that NHTSA, America's traffic safety organization was right all along... Toyota's problems were mechanical, not electrical. And that comes after one of the most exhaustive, thorough, and intensive research efforts ever taken... So let's be clear. The jury is back. The verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period."

...but it's secret

This was a ringing vindication of both NHTSA and Toyota. Given this endorsement, the decision to keep significant portions of the "Toyota Study" of unintended acceleration secret was puzzling. This secrecy was sought by Toyota and acceded to by NHTSA on the grounds that some of the information in the investigation reports was related to trade secrets and commercial or financial information.

Nevertheless, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for non-redacted versions of much of the study material, as well as for a number of supporting reports that were missing from the record altogether.

Less heavily redacted versions of some of the documents and some entirely new documents were publicly released following our FOIA request. However, much of the material we sought continued to be withheld by NHTSA. We quickly discovered that some of the material NHTSA had previously redacted in the older reports was clearly unrelated to Toyota trade secrets: for example, production counts of Toyota Camrys which had been available on NHTSA's own website for years.

We appealed NHTSA's decision on May 4, 2011 pointing out that "As far as we are able to determine, the 'revised redactions' in the newly available reports are not matters that are trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential. Therefore, we believe the non-redacted reports we have requested may not properly be withheld under Exemption 4."

NHTSA's Chief Counsel, Mr. O. Kevin Vincent, denied our appeal on June 14, 2011 finding that, "the Agency properly determined that the currently redacted materials are entitled to confidential treatment under FOIA Exemption 4."

But nobody told Google

Among the many secrets in the report, we were particularly intrigued with this one:

NASA_FR_Appendix_A_Software.pdf, Page 18.

Our interest in this topic comes from a "Dealership Product Report" known from NHTSA Investigation TQ10-001 (see TOY-TQ001-04B-00000054P.pdf). In that report, it was stated that the consumer described his 2010 Corolla as though it "feels like it accelerates on its own..." The only diagnostic trouble code (DTC) noted in the report, U0100, concerns problems with communications through the Controller Area Network (CAN).

Judging from the observation in the NASA report shown above, someone at Toyota had apparently thought it important enough to conduct a field count of the times this particular DTC could be found in vehicles brought in to the dealer "for any problem." Yet the redaction in the NASA report made it appear as though Toyota had demanded that whatever might have been learned from this exercise be kept secret and NHTSA had agreed.

We wondered why.

A web search through Google reveals both the "secret" and the answer to our question:

Redaction revealed
Google search results, June 24, 2011.

The unredacted Google search result shown above makes obvious what neither Toyota nor NHTSA wanted the public to know. That is, no one had actually followed up this potentially important topic by "correlating" the instances of data drop out with known incidents of unintended acceleration. Pursuing this lead might have contributed to the mitigation of unintended acceleration by connecting the dots of data loss through the Controller Area Network to specific incidents.

While denying our FOIA request and appeal under the guise of protecting a Toyota trade secret, NHTSA and Toyota hid their failure - and NASA's - to investigate this potential clue.

The Google search result above shows definitively that there isn't any trade secret or commercial or financial information involved. There is only an embarrassing fact that neither Toyota nor NHTSA apparently wanted revealed.

In this instance at least, the evidence shows NHTSA's Chief Counsel's claim that "the currently redacted materials are entitled to confidential treatment" is untrue.

What is true is the fact that NHTSA possesses - and keeps secret - information gathered at taxpayers' expense in various NASA reports which could aid further investigation of unintended acceleration by researchers outside the agency.

UPDATE: See the page Covering Up Redactions in NASA's "Toyota Study" of Unintended Acceleration for NHTSA's Orwellian response to this issue.

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