Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

The courage of Betsy Benjaminson helped bring TOYOTA's reprehensible conduct to public attention:

Betsy Spills Toyota’s Beans

To steal a line from Bogie: “Of all the publications in all the websites in all the world, she walks into Corporate Counsel.” She – being Betsy Benjaminson, a freelance translator from Israel who was tasked with translating from Japanese into English documents regarding Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Corporate Counsel — being the self-described “leading digital destination for in-house counsel to find breaking news and practical information.” And this bit of breaking news? When you lie to the world about an automotive electronics problem that has the potential to result in fatal crashes, don’t expect every underling to keep your secrets.

The story, entitled Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration? (Spoiler alert: the answer is: No.) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a company in disarray with a technically challenging problem that its technicians weren’t looking too hard to solve, while its legal and public relations gears clicked into place to drive the denial machine forward.

Our favorite:

“Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).
‘Tinto is extremely pessimistic,’ Hagiwara wrote, ‘and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can’t completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.).’ Tinto’s primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): ‘For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year’s situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA.’ That failure, Tinto said, ‘may be a violation of the TREAD Act’—the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.”
Benjaminson was apparently so disturbed by the unvarnished emails she was translating, cast against Toyota’s public assurances, she leaked them. According to this story, some of the NASA scientists who worked on the February 2011 report that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood proclaimed an exoneration of Toyota electronics were so disturbed by the way they were forced to “investigate,” they refused to sign the final product.

This story is well worth your time. It’s not likely to aid digestion for any in-house counsel reading it over his or her cornflakes, but for those of us who have been challenging the narrative put forth by the auto industry and its enablers – NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation – that unintended acceleration is always detected by the vehicle electronics, and that the absence of this evidence is ironclad proof that the problem was a driver or a floormat, it’s got the unmistakable ring of truth.

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