Pressuring Toyota into an Overcautious Recall

With the news that Toyota has agreed to extend its floor mat and gas pedal recall to another 2.1 million vehicles, mostly SUVs, certain press outlets may slip back into the tone of coverage (Toyota in crisis! Safety mysteries still unresolved!) so prevalent last year before the scare was deflated. Some perspective:

  • As you learned if you read all the way down to paragraph 14 of the hyperventilating L.A. Times report – and never learned at all from some other reports – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now closing its investigation of alleged sudden acceleration problems in Toyotas. That’s a huge win for the Japanese automaker and the real news of the day.
  • NHTSA insisted, however – presumably as its price for stamping the case as closed – that Toyota expand its recall as happened yesterday.
  • Toyota’s stock went up on the news, not down, suggesting that in investors’ view the price was well worth paying for the automaker to rid itself of the regulatory entanglement.
  • Floor mat jams that obstruct proper operation of the brake and gas pedal are an exceedingly, even freakishly rare cause of unintended acceleration accidents. While they do seem to have been a factor in one much-publicized crash, they have nothing to do with the vast majority of unintended acceleration episodes, which as we now know (or knew all along) arise from drivers’ hitting the wrong pedal by mistake.
  • To the extent floor mat jams are a real safety worry, the main way to avoid them is to not throw extra mats in, and watch out for mats that aren’t intended for the make/model, may be prone to slip around, or both. The New York Daily News spoke to a Toyota manager in Brooklyn: “The biggest problem is people put in an extra mat, and that’s been the real issue,” said Michael Ianelli. “They’re not supposed to put in a second mat.” Much of the recall seems to be aimed at engineering around the problem of careless user maintenance.
  • Murmurings are already being heard that similarly designed Toyota vehicles sold in other parts of the world aren’t subject to the recall – another hint the company may be trying more to keep NHTSA happy than address what it views as a major safety issue.

Millions of dollars will now be spent with very dubious safety benefits. But at least a federal agency will be able to boast that it “did something.”

Told Ya Toyota

Readers of Cato at Liberty knew all about this last July, and now the Obama Department of Transportation is confirming it publicly:

The Obama administration’s investigation into Toyota safety problems has found no electronic flaws to account for reports of sudden, unintentional acceleration and other safety problems. …
“We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended acceleration in Toyotas,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

If, as retiring NHTSA official George Person charged last July, DoT officials dragged their heels in making public the exculpatory findings, there were very real costs to the economy. Not only did lawsuits proliferate which one hopes are now on their way to sputtering out, but Toyota (as Reuters reports) “was the only major automaker in the United States to report a drop in sales last year” even though the Japanese-owned automaker has ramped up costly dealer and sales incentives. Did it make a difference that the federal government has taken a proprietor’s interest in major Toyota competitors GM and Chrysler, or that a former trial lawyer lobbyist heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration? Those questions might be worth a hearing at the newly reconstituted House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Retiring Official: DOT Is Sitting on Pro-Toyota Probe Results

Damning if true: 

A new report in the WSJ strongly suggests Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is unwilling to release a report on the agency’s investigation into charges of “sudden acceleration” in Toyotas because its findings are too favorable to the Japanese automaker’s case. The source is a high-ranking retiring NHTSA official, George Person, formerly chief of the agency’s Recall Management Division.

Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair describes the report as ongoing and not completed; she also denies that Person was “involved in” the probe but does not appear to deny that he was briefed on the resulting report and is familiar with its contents.

Person says some NHTSA officials objected to the keeping of the report under wraps; it is not known what position was taken by the Obama appointee who heads NHTSA, David Strickland, a former lobbyist for the trial lawyers’ association AAJ and a principal author of the horrendous children’s-product-safety law CPSIA. Earlier here.

“Wherever the science leads,” indeed.

Claybrook: All Your Data Are Belong to U.S.

I was pleased last week to testify in Congress about a draft bill that would mandate “event data recorders” in all new cars. Automobile black boxes or “EDRs” are an issue that found me a few years ago when I commented on their privacy consequences to a newspaper and heard from concerned drivers across the country.

My testimony to the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection had three main themes:

1) The Constitution doesn’t give Congress authority to design automobiles or their safety features;

2) Only a relevant sample of crash data is needed to improve auto safety—overspending on a 100% EDR mandate will keep the poor in older, more dangerous cars and undermine auto safety for that cohort; and

3) The privacy protections in the bill help, but consumers should control the existence and functioning of EDRs in their cars.

A co-panelist taking a different view was Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In her testimony, Claybrook called for a near quadrupling of NHTSA’s budget to $500 million per year. She also called for the construction of what might be called “Total Auto Awareness” infrastructure.

“[T]he bill should require that the data collected by the EDR be automatically transmitted to a NHTSA database,” Claybrook wrote. She probably meant only crash data, and she paid lip service to privacy, but this represents a probable goal of the auto safety community. Our money, our cars, and our data are instruments for them to use in pursuit of their goals.

If this auto surveillance infrastructure is mandated, what EDRs collect, store, and transmit to government databases will grow over time.

They’re going to keep you alive, damnit, if it burns up all your freedom and autonomy to do it! It’s the beating heart count that matters, not the reasons for living.