Tag: toyota

Goodbye, Secretary LaHood

Just 12 hours ago I expressed disappointment that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had expressed his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term. Now – I suppose it’s just coincidence – LaHood says he’s departing after all. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of anti-libertarian proposals and regrettable policy decisions over the past four years: 

  • LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even handsfree, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).
  • Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood provided a bipartisan gloss for his free-spending department: the Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of local “nanny grants” that drew resistance from House Republicans.
  • After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who concluded the scare (like earlier ones against Audi and other makes) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some felt that as a high officer of a government that had taken over and was running competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-sentencer of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.
  • Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood.

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.”

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.

Raising an Eyebrow at LaHood’s Toyota Remarks

In response to the large recalls affecting several Toyota models, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday advised Americans to “stop driving” their Toyotas. In testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, LaHood said:

My advice to anyone who owns one of these vehicles is stop driving it, and take it to the Toyota dealership because they believe they have the fix for it.

Later in the day, he elaborated:

I want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible. NHTSA will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.

As Transportation Secretary in an administration that is politically vested in the success of General Motors (recall how taxpayers were forced to take a 60% stake in GM for $50 billion+), was LaHood exploiting an opportunity to tip the scales further in GM’s favor? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but as long as GM remains nationalized, any comments by administration officials on matters affecting the auto industry should be viewed skeptically and through this prism, as they can irresponsibly move markets.