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Toyota Congressional Hearings: What to Expect

Here comes political posturing, pointing and posterior protection with your tax dollars at work, or is it non-work?

by on Jan.31, 2010

As all of the House is up for re-election this year. Need we say more?

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, is embroiled in two controversial U.S. recalls for unintended acceleration involving ~5.3 million vehicles so far, and sluggish-to-sticking accelerator pedals, at least 2.3 million vehicles.

In addition, this week Toyota is halting production at five North American assembly plants that make the affected vehicles to free up revised pedal assemblies for repairs. The company apparently knew of the problem and has been working on a fix for quite a while. This is shaping up as a classic coverup, according to the many critics of the company.

Millions of  heretofore mostly satisfied Toyota owners are potentially affected, and until root causes are established and fixes put in place, the anxiety of the unknown continues in the growing and increasingly skeptical media coverage.

As all of the House is up for re-election later this year, amid a growing voter revolt against incumbents for their partisanship, “pay for play” politics and lack of action on unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, among other things, this sets the stage for the classic, three-ring, political circus.

The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a February 10th hearing titled, “Toyota Gas Pedals: Is the Public at Risk?” Lest you have forgotten, this same committee held the well-publicized Firestone tire recall hearings back in 2000. I know, I was there.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee also said that it would hold a hearing on February 25th to look at unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Bart Stupak, Democrat Michigan, and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said, “Staff has met with Administration officials and Toyota officials as part of our investigation. Members of Congress and consumers need to know exactly what the problem is, how to fix the problem and what must be done to protect drivers of Toyota vehicles,” he said.

Translation: Private meetings will not get me or any other congressman the press and TV footage I need to convey to voters that I should be re-elected and keep my lucrative job and medical insurance plan. (Alternate translations for this and all of the following are of course welcome in our comment section. Civil language please. )

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Comedy or Tragedy?

Expect: Statements that allow Stupak and other congressmen to express to the cameras their deep concern, while questioning the effectiveness of regulatory agencies. I do not expect he will explain why we need an expensive public hearing when the committee has already been meeting privately with Toyota and NHTSA on this matter. Moreover, both need to solve the problem or problems – and they will – without Congressional “help.”

Also expect: Leaked documents in the days ahead of the hearings with apparently damaging excerpts from Toyota’s required written responses by politicians to favored Washington Post and New York Times, and other political media. Toyota’s fuller explanations will not be leaked.

Ray LaHood, who is responsible for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as head of the Department of Transportation, told Chicago’s WGN Radio last week before the invitable hearings were announced that “the reason Toyota decided to do the recall and to stop manufacturing was because we asked them to.”

Translation: NHTSA now admits that five deaths and 17 injuries were the result of unintended acceleration in Toyotas since 2006, but has yet to provide an explanation why the safety agency took no action in spite of thousands of complaints. If the situation is as dire as Secretary LaHood’s comments now imply, why did the safety allow Toyota’s  dismissal of the magnitude of the problem to continue?  In addition, even though LaHood is a Republican from Illinois, as a member of President Obama’s Administration ( under criticism for its failure to reform Washington institutions), this regulatory failure at least partially occurred during a Democratic Administration as the number of complaints skyrocketed during the past year.

Expect: NHTSA Administrator, David Strickland, to explain in great detail the steps the agency has been and is taking to protect the safety of Toyota owners. Also expect some tap-dancing around the “why no action previously” question that will come from the posturing politicians; also expect an interesting debate about whether the stop sale and manufacturing halt that Toyota announced five days after the recall was strictly legal or should have been implemented immediately.

This has huge implications for all makers going forward, not just Toyota. (Other automaker executives might consider toning down their private gloating over the tattered reputation of once quality King Toyota. You could be next. )

I do not expect a persuasive answer as to why NHTSA didn’t go back in and look at all of the complaints about unintended acceleration -the one it has dismissed during the past several years.

The Oversight committee has also asked Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor North America, to testify.

Toyota’s credibility about its assertions of the causes of runaway or unintended acceleration accidents has been damaged, if not destroyed. Although the company continually said that it was because of a floor mat interference problem, at least one accident, involving four fatalities, has now been confirmed where the floor mats were removed from the car and locked in the trunk when the deaths occurred. Then there are the sticking accelerators, revealed well after the floor mat fiasco,  but apparently with the problem  identified but not revealed in the same time period as the floor mat defect. Worse, a fix was under development long before Toyota admitted to the potentially deadly pedal issue.

In a statement about the hearings, Toyota said, “We’ve identified the cause of the problem and are focusing all of our energy and resources on developing and thoroughly testing remedies. Our engineers have been working around the clock and we’ve been in direct communication with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) throughout this process.”

“We also appreciate the opportunity to inform the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about our efforts to address this situation for our customers and we pledge our full cooperation with the Committee,” Toyota said.

Translation: By the time we provide camera fodder for the politicians, we will have announced a fix — which we have discussed with NHTSA. NHTSA if it chooses can have the  biggest and final say on how safety campaigns are conducted and their timing.We couldn’t have done any better here.

Expect: Automotive recalls will continue from all makers. In addition, hearings will go on. I also expect NHTSA will revise its customer complaint  database handling procedures to continually re-evaluate previously dismissed concerns.

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One Response to “Toyota Congressional Hearings: What to Expect”

  1. Ken Zino says:

    Statement from a politician – Ken Zino, editor

    Dingell Seeks Answers from Toyota, NHTSA

    Washington, DC – Feb. 3, Congressman John D. Dingell (D-MI15) sent letters to Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requesting answers about Toyota’s recent recalls. Reports of sudden vehicle acceleration prompted these recalls, although controversy surrounds Toyota’s handling of the recall and the company’s explanation of the cause of sudden acceleration in certain of its vehicle models.

    “I am in no way certain that Toyota’s explanation for the cause of incidents of sudden acceleration in its vehicles satisfies me,” said Dingell. “Toyota’s responses to the questions my letter will hopefully clarify several points of contention related to the recalls and the incidents themselves that have been reported in the press.”

    On February 25, 2010, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will convene a hearing to examine the Toyota recalls. NHTSA will testify at that hearing, following criticism in the press that its response to the Toyota recalls has been poorly managed.

    “NHTSA’s actions related to the Toyota recalls trouble me, especially as reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles predate the recalls by at least two years,” according to Dingell.

    “This case illustrates my fear that NHTSA may be limited by a lack of resources, whether in terms of funding, personnel, or statutory authority, to carry out its mandate. I intend to ask frank questions to this effect at the Energy and Commerce Committee hearing later this month, which I hope will present a fair opportunity for both Toyota and NHTSA to engage members of Congress in an open and honest dialogue about the pertinent matters at hand.”