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Toyota, The Media Owe You an Apology (businessweek.com)
184 points by AndrewWarner on Feb 11, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments



Call me a cynic, but the fact that this witchhunt happened during the very short timeframe where the government owned GM and had a significant incentive to show returns on the 'bailout' investment makes me think there was more to the regulatory investigation than public safety.


I mentioned this multiple times in the midst of the whole fiasco but always felt like a kook for even bringing it up.


Me too. I'm also here to say "told you so" to the many, many people who refused to listen. Fortunately, Toyota knew how fickle Americans are, and weathered the storm patiently. After all, we do buy their cars in the end!


I think Toyota actually believes in something powerful called value.

There have been times when I've thought some companies and people believe, "It's all bullshit and perception!" There have been times when people have told me that flat-out and have tried to motivate me to follow them under that assumption.

"Whited sepulchre" comes to mind.


Same here. I'm not a conspiracy nut but let's face it -- it would only take a dozen or so well placed back channel e-mails to get things rolling. Suddenly everyone else is obligated to talk about it because it's the big story. Full echo chamber effect. My guess would be more of a commercially driven agenda though especially for the commercial news media that pays the bills with auto advertising. Throughout the witch hunt I'm sure their ad buys from Toyota didn't suffer at all and they helped secure their long term US interests. Win-win situation.


And that is pretty much why I gave up reading news.

You don't have to know what is going on outside your field, and it is so much more peaceful not knowing all the dangers that are going to kill you (but never really happen).


The public clearly saw the same ham-handed manipulation of the press during the whole Valerie Plame debacle. The same sort of thing is made obvious in most of the Daily Show episodes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_Consent:_The_Poli...

You don't have to read the whole thing. Just find the parts where they do empirical comparisons. It becomes very obvious that the western press is a propaganda machine -- just the slick "free market" version.


Actually, it was about Okinawa. The previous PM of Japan, Hatoyama, made loud noises about forcing the U.S. to move it's military base off of Okinawa ("The time has come for us to seek a more equal relationship with the U.S." @see http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1978647,00....), and the Toyota episode was a way to slap the wayward child on it's hand and show him who's daddy.

After Japan cried "enough" and sent Hatoyama packing, things slowly started to return to "normal".

Toyota ADRs have rallied 19% since Hatoyama's resignation.

Also, by the way, there is a small U.S. presence (not 100% sure if it military or otherwise), but there is a clear area right in the middle of Tokyo in the Roppongi area which seems to be reserved for U.S. personnel. You can see helicopters (and they sure as hell looked military) land there regularly from the top of the Mori Tower building. The "H" for the helipad is quite visible even on Google Maps in Satellite mode, and whenever I saw a U.S. helicopter land there, I used to wonder how any country can be such a puppet to another and still act "free". The lack of awareness and discussion about that area and the lack of access to it by everyday Japanese spoke tons about the Japan-U.S. relationship. I believe Hatoyama stood for the right thing.


The lack of awareness and discussion about that area and the lack of access to it by everyday Japanese spoke tons about the Japan-U.S. relationship.

I should hope so, given that it's the US Embassy.


The US Embassy compound is on the Akasaka side of Roppongi and the Embassy itself is towards Toranomon. There is also a small US Army base between Roppongi and the Aoyama graveyard, right next to the new National Museum.

FWIW, it's not just the Japanese that can not get into that base, civilian US citizens will also probably find trouble getting in. Which is a bummer since the PX there sells affordable cuts of meat.


> There is also a small US Army base between Roppongi and the Aoyama graveyard, right next to the new National Museum.

Thanks. I finally found an article mentioning it : http://www.jpri.org/publications/friends/mcneill_JT_05-09-06...


No, it is not merely an Embassy. It is a U.S. Military presence. I finally found an article with a photo and more concrete details : http://www.jpri.org/publications/friends/mcneill_JT_05-09-06...


A part of the problem is that so many of the people in news seemingly didn't even pay attention in grade school science classes. I remember one local newsroom's momentary collective embarrassment when it became obvious that one of their number a) had no concept of how fast orbital velocity is b) apparently had an Aristotelian concept of momentum and c) held the 19th century belief that just going a certain speed could somehow harm or stress the human body.

In the US, a lot of news which has technical content is presented by people who don't understand it.


"so many of the people in news seemingly didn't even pay attention in grade school science classes."

I've noticed this, too. For example, I once read on CNN that a satellite was orbiting "one trillion miles" away from Earth. But even more egregious than that numerical error (which was later corrected) was an article a few years ago on how young people's thumbs are "mutating". Basically, the idea was that people were using their thumbs to type on cell phones. Somehow CNN made a genetics story out of it.


Maybe that guy on CNN was paying attention in biology, but he was passing notes to the cute redhead when the teacher was covering Lamarckian evolution right at the moment he explained it was wrong.


It's only a problem if you want quality news. CBS wants advertising revenue, so they will produce content that attracts viewers who will buy advertised products. What they are currently doing produces their desired output.

The only real problem is that this bad news becomes "common knowledge", and it is difficult to separate independently derived common knowledge (probably true, or somehow indicative of innate human behavior) from mass media common knowledge (probably false, and ripe for exploitation by a small number of people).


The only real problem is that this bad news becomes "common knowledge"

This is a real pernicious problem. For about a decade, the tech fields as a whole underestimated the performance of JIT VM, overestimated the importance of FLOPS, and failed to consider the cost of I/O. Countless Pointy Haired Bosses made misguided decisions on this basis. Hordes of programmers decided not to seriously consider whole families of languages on this basis as well.

Always suspect the "common knowledge." The level of common knowledge is like the level of defensive driving on the freeways. About 1/2 the people out there are below average.

(If you know about any subject in depth, take stock of how badly misunderstood it is by the general public. Most likely, it's just as bad everywhere else. Information asymmetry! Now go out and profit!)


Always suspect the "common knowledge."

Not just this, but if anyone uses "common sense" as an argument, run away in fear.

As far as I can tell, "common sense" is just code for one of (A) "I'm too lazy to provide a rational explanation"; (B) "I don't think you're worth explaining to"; (C) "I don't think you're capable of understanding"; or (D) "I don't have a real explanation, but I still need to assert the truth of my claim."


Is it a good time to buy TM?


Here's a fun recent one from Australia. http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3132384.htm

Media Watch is a brilliant show.


I prefer Front Line myself. That Michael Moore fellow (no relation to the documentarist) is very trustworthy.


had no concept of how fast orbital velocity is

Umm... what do you mean by that? I consider myself fairly well versed in science, but I certainly can't rattle off the average orbital speed of a GPS satellite.


Yes, but you know full well that current fighter jets can't get very near it. That was one of his obvious mistakes.


I could probably work it out in a few minutes on the back of an envelope. You just have to know the radius of earth (around 6000 km), the strength of gravity at surface level, that gravity of a sphere is the same as that of a point mass, and that gravity drops off as the inverse square of distance. Add in some integration, and a guess about how big an orbit is (just choose infinite size for an upper bound, if you aren't sure), and you are set to go.


The media also owes an apology to Richard Jewel and the Duke lacrosse team.


The Toyota thing was obvious propaganda, constructed just as a story was needed to boost sales from American automakers.

The businessmen that run these monolithic media corporations, for whom news is only a small part of the total holdings, need friends with political power. The politicians need someone to make them look good. It's a mutually beneficial relationship; the businessmen get a fast track to DMCA et al, the politicians get a fast track to making their choices from earlier look good (bailing out American autos, in this case).


Could it not be as simple as the media taking any opportunity to scare people? Fear is a powerful motivator; if a story scares people, they will watch.


After what Consumer Reports pulled with Suzuki and the media reporting on that, I am pretty sure Toyota shouldn't hold their breath.


Can't forget the Ford pickups that 'Dateline' discovered have a tendency to explode when you attach model rocket engines to the gas tank.


> Ford pickups ... have a tendency to explode when you attach model rocket engines to the gas tank.

And I was told it was a fail safe mechanism so that the gas tank didn't explode unexpectedly, some people will lie to you to sell you anything!


Heh. Actually, the Mythbusters guys have tried to get gas tanks to explode, with seemingly everything short of strapping rocket engines directly to the thing.

It done burn good, but no 'splode.


Thats not really fair.

It didn't burn until they shot it with tracer/incendiary rounds. Normal bullets don't come anywhere near setting the gas on fire.


The more I learn, the more the humble gas tank looks like really awesome tech! I mean, you can put a shitload of energy in the thing, and for all that it's surprisingly robust.


After their "Snow Plow" experiment, I would rather double check with other sources.


Take a seat in the waiting room next to Audi.


i am unaware of this.. can you point to a few links/resources?



thanks!

didn't know 'cause this was a while back..


Uncontrolled acceleration is a real phenomenon, although I don't think it is Toyota-specific. This happened to me half a dozen times when I owned an Opel Corsa. While going uphill in low gear for long periods (usually in mountainous terrain, in the French Alps), the car would suddenly bound forwards for no reason, and keep going on a steep uphill even if I took my foot off the accelerator. I had a couple of near-misses with oncoming cars and rock walls.

I don't know how this works if you have automatic transmission, but the principle must be the same. If you drive at very low speeds for prolonged periods, especially on uphills, the effect would probably be replicated.

Presumably, this effect would hit learners more than experienced drivers, since the former have a tendency to stick to low speeds and/or low gears.

I don't have an explanation, but from the accompanying noise I know it was something taking place within in the combustion engine itself. It was not a problem with the brakes or transmission.


You probably had a diesel engine and too much oil in the carter. This may be a case of self-ignition of oil.

Anyway, pressing hard on the brake would have stopped you.


People generally agree that there was not a malfunction in the electronics.

But whatever happened with Woz's car? He claimed he could reproduce an uncontrolled acceleration bug in the electronics. (However, this is unrelated to the alleged malfunction affecting other people.) Last I heard, he turned over his car to Toyota, and that's it.

Anyone know more details?


Woz was able to find some bad hysteresis in the cruise control system. It looked from my reading like the speed control system was over-damped, but I don't really see what it had to do with the media reports - given that you can exit cruise control just by touching the breaks or accelerator and AFAIK nobody reporting unexpected acceleration had been hitting the "faster" button on their cruise control.


By the way, what's so scary about a gas pedal getting stuck? Can't you just put the car in neutral?


Some people respond poorly in emergencies. The fight-or-flight response causes their brains to lock up and they freak out, instead of making rational decisions. They'll burn out the breaks trying to break normally, for example, or just do nothing until they run into something. Even though in such a situation any combination of fully breaking, shutting off the engine, picking the accelerator pedal up with the edge of your shoe, using the emergency brake, or shifting into neutral would probably be more than sufficient.


Thing is, just jamming on the brakes will stop your car, every time. Your brakes are much more powerful than your accelerator. The problem is when a driver thinks their foot is on the brake, when it is actually on the accelerator. So mashing their foot to the ground just exacerbates (i.e. causes in the first place) the problem.

The panic response is very difficult to overcome.


Indeed, that was the first thing I listed. In an emergency you should condition yourself to jam on the brakes. That will stop the car, even if the accelerator is running.

However, some people will try to apply the brakes gradually (as you would when coming to a stop normally). And in that case the brakes won't respond as one might expect. If the brakes don't seem to work, push harder until they do.


Also, if you use your brakes to slow down with a stuck accelerator but not stop you can wear out your break pads fairly quickly at 60 mph. At which point you're SOL.

EDIT: Reading a comment farther down, I'm reminded that this is a matter of the copper pads getting too hot rather than wearing away. Same effect though.


I've done it once...went for the brake, my foot was at an awkward angle, slipped, and got my foot pressed down on the accelerator and the toe jammed under the brake pedal.

Logically, all I needed to do was take a deep breath and move my foot sideways, but all I could think about was pulling up, which of course only exacerbated the problem.

It's not easy to think rationally when you are driving a car with several people accelerating when it should be breaking...and in the case of the linked story, it's not easy to accept blame either.


This has been discussed extensively on car forums, and motorcycle forums as well. You can:

- Shut off the engine

- Put it in neutral

- Stand on the brakes (all but the most souped-up aftermarket monsters will have brakes that are stronger than the engine. Please note, STAND ON THEM. If you drag them lightly, you run a higher risk of overheating them, rendering them useless)

- Use the emergency brake

- Use the clutch (if it's a stick)

- Pull all large fuses from fuse box

- Induce a spin

- Drive the side of the car into something like a divider to scrub speed

- Run into the back of another car traveling close to your speed. They will likely slow down, slowing you down.

In short, there's a whole lot of things you can try. People just don't always know very much about driving/cars, or don't think well while panicking.


Nice list. Shouldn't you be careful about shutting off the engine, though? Won't that lock the steering wheel?


I think not, since I've shut down the engine a few times in a long downhill on an empty but curvy road and been able to steer. The steering and braking assists (not sure what they're called in English) won't work though. Maybe if you turn the key all the way to off, putting out all the electronics etc. you might lock the steering.


No, you won't. Try moving the steering wheel in a parked car.


I had this happen to me once. If you're on the highway, yeah, sure; you have nothing but time to react.

When it happened to me, I was in a parking lot. The pedal was accidentally pushed past a fold in the floor mat, which caught it and pushed it down. I was hurtling toward the curb in a small parking lot -- the car was a Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4. It was scary. Very scary. Even knowing it was a stick shift, and all I had to do was press the clutch and listen to my poor engine ping the rev limiter while I figured out what happened.

I can imagine a lot of circumstances where this would be worse. Imagine if it happened in a school zone, unexpectedly. Imagine if it happened while you were parking.

I think that's part of the reason that we haven't really heard as much about it -- we hear about the catastrophic ones, or the higher profile ones, but the majority of cases probably weren't dire.


The gas pedal getting "stuck" is a result of the scary, not the cause.

About to hit something unexpectedly->slam foot down on wrong pedal->omg the car accelerated when it should have stopped!


It's not that Toyota didn't have any problems with the cars, they just found that there was no electronic malfunction.

From CNN (http://money.cnn.com/2011/02/08/autos/nhtsa_nasa_toyota_fina...):

"Toyota recalled nearly 8 million vehicles in 2008 and 2009 for defects related to gas pedals -- including sticky pedals and floor mat obstruction -- as a result of complaints of unwanted acceleration."


"As with the report on Tuesday, the preliminary examination given to Congress in August found no evidence of flawed electronics in vehicles that crashed. That examination found only one instance in which an accelerator pedal became trapped under a floor mat and none in which a pedal became stuck or sprang back too slowly."

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/09/business/09auto.html?pagew...

One instance out of millions of cars.


Are you sure Toyota didn't do that gratuitously as a PR exercise? Because I'm not.


8M cars to recall (and the resulting hit to prestige) is a huge cost, compared to the PR gain they had on this issue.


The alternative was doing nothing and being raped by the media for killing people and doing nothing about it.

What choice did Toyota have? Better to be seen doing something even if the problem did not exist.


Well, isn't that kinda what they did? The fine wasn't for having unsafe cars. It was for getting reports that their cars were unsafe and hiding them from regulators


Compared to the cost of finding out that the cars actually were defective and killing people? PR-cost plus settling the class action suit.


1. Buy shares in companies hit by media hysteria. 2. Wait for hysteria to pass. 3. Profit!


Great article. Will CBS apologize? Will they learn anything from this? Since they don't seem to have suffered financially from their irresponsible reporting, I am afraid the won't change a thing.


> After all, brakes always override the throttle

Huh? Is this only in cars with automatic transmission or something? Since with a manual transmission you couldn't get going uphill if this were true.


Could the downvoter answer the question? In none of the cars I've driven does the "brake always override the throttle". Yes, brake is more powerful than the the engine, but that is hardly "overriding" in the sense that I understand it.


You're interpreting "override" as a boolean (either/or) relationship when the poster was describing an analog relationship.

The "stop" signal of the brakes outweighs/overrides the "go" signal of the throttle by some low multiple. If I had to guess, the brakes on an average car can consume 3-4 times as much horsespower as the engine produces. Porsche used to describe some of their brakes as "2000 hp brakes".


Maybe true, but they also spent months illegally withholding crash data from government regulators. Let's call it even.


What's your source?

All I found are civil suits against Toyota asking for the EDR data but nothing criminal for "withholding crash data from the government regulators".


Sorry, my wording was confusing. I meant they were hiding the fact that people were getting into accidents from "sticky gas pedals" not that they were hiding actual EDR crash data.

"Toyota Motor Corporation agreed to pay a $16.375 million fine - the largest fine permitted by law - for failing to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of a dangerous pedal defect for almost four months" http://www.nhtsa.gov/PR/DOT-71-10


This seems to conflict with mukyu's post above:

"As with the report on Tuesday, the preliminary examination given to Congress in August found no evidence of flawed electronics in vehicles that crashed. That examination found only one instance in which an accelerator pedal became trapped under a floor mat and none in which a pedal became stuck or sprang back too slowly."


Even if the cars turn out to all be fine (and we don't know that yet), Toyota certainly couldn't have known that at the time.

It is totally unacceptable (and illegal) to hide a potentially fatal problem with your products, even if you think it's probably not widespread.


> Even if the cars turn out to all be fine (and we don't know that yet)

Test enough cars and you'll find consistent defects. Test yet more and you'll find consistent and potentially life threatening defects. Is this a fatal problem with your product? Yes. Is it acceptable? Yes.

No one would envision my hifi burning my house down, but if it turned on (and it turned itself on at 9pm and off at 11pm every day, I never found out why because it didn't even have a timer or alarm circuit) and something failed in just that right way then yes my house could burn down. If my accelerator has a defect and fails in just that right way then yes I could crash... or I could put my car into neutral like a non-retarded person, or I could drop into 1st or 2nd gear (even in an automatic, which way too many people don't even know they have a 1st and 2nd gear), or I could just take my foot off the accelerator and apply it to the brake.

I'm sorry, but when it comes down to the simple facts that all these accidents were caused by driver error, or in the very few cases where defects did exist the accidents were ultimately caused by inexperienced drivers, and yes a person driving for 30 years can be way more inexperienced than someone who just got their license. Vehicles ultimately fail-safe. If you turn you engine off, you're left with a vehicle with no power steering and no power brakes. If you're on a highway your power steering is largely irrelevant anyway, unless they suddenly started introducing hairpin turns on all the national highways that I've yet to learn about. Your brakes, again, don't need to be power assisted for them to work, all you have to do is get to a shoulder and let your vehicle roll to a damn stop.

There's claims that switching the engine off while in motion is dangerous, but that's a wholly unproven and rather stupid claim. The problem, if there is one, is that people would panic and over-steer because of the resistance of the wheel, which would be deadly at 70mph. However, that's still driver error.

There's only one thing I find dangerous that car manufacturers have let remain for a long time, is that your brakes are a fail-deadly system. Hydraulic brakes need manual-pressure to activate whilst air-brakes are a fail-safe system requiring manual pressure to release. This would mean that in that situation where you have to turn your engine off at highway speeds, your brakes would gently start applying as the PSI drops in the air compressor.

You're claiming it's unacceptable to hide a problem with your product, but you're naively not understanding that there is always a defect margin and if that's within the government required percentage then they really shouldn't need to publicly disclose anything at all because it's in the publics best interest not to know that every appliance we own has the potential to defect in a way that could kill us.

I had a humble old school MP3 player that melted itself because for some bizarre reason it tried to charge the alkaline battery in it. Worse yet, the battery connectors were actually gold plated and managed to burn a series of parallel lines into my desk. If it had been set on a piece of paper and had been equally as unattended, I'd have likely set my desk alight.


>There's claims that switching the engine off while in motion is dangerous, but that's a wholly unproven and rather stupid claim. The problem, if there is one, is that people would panic and over-steer because of the resistance of the wheel, which would be deadly at 70mph. However, that's still driver error.

It is stupid and dangerous. You forgot about the steering lock.


You can't get the key out of the ignition until the vehicle is in park. You can't get the vehicle in park until it stops. Steering lock is not a problem.


No, you're a fucking retard if you pull your key out triggering the steering lock. Electrical and mechanical steering locks only activate after the key has been removed, or in the case of electrical locks after about 10-15 minutes. However you can keep all instrumentation running without having the engine running, so the electrical lock wouldn't kick in until 10-15 minutes after turning that off.

Why do they do this? Oh, because it's still possible to tow or push-start a vehicle and the point at which you cannot start your engine is long before you cannot power your instrumentation and thus deactivate your steering lock.


Steering locks only engage when the key is removed from the ignition, not when the engine is merely turned off.


"there is always a defect margin and if that's within the government required percentage then they really shouldn't need to publicly disclose anything at all"

Um, that was my point. It was NOT within government regulations. It was illegal. And they paid the maximum fine allowed by law for it.




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