Sustained Outrage

Toyota to mount its own information campaign

Toyota is preparing to go on the offensive this week, several media outlets are reporting, particularly against those who have criticized the automaker’s response to allegations of problems with electronic throttle control systems in its cars.

From the Wall Street Journal:

With embarrassing vehicle recalls and testy congressional hearings behind it, Toyota Motor Corp. is planning an assault next week on its critics as the company digs in for a mammoth legal battle.

In a media event planned for Monday and a Tuesday address to 1,000 suppliers, the Japanese auto maker plans to defend its electronics systems.

It will roll out independent experts like the head of Stanford University’s auto-research center to discredit a study that suggests electronics are to blame for sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles.

The company is also challenging the credibility of a self-described whistleblower who has turned over internal company documents to congressional investigators. The company is providing reporters with court filings that it says show the former employee has a history of mental illness and poor performance reviews.

And the Financial Times:

Toyota will on Monday hit back at one of its most high-profile critics by staging a technical demonstration intended to rebut his claim to have uncovered a potentially dangerous flaw in the carmaker’s onboard electronic control systems.

Toyota’s rebuttal of tests carried out by David Gilbert, associate professor of auto technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, comes amid growing pressure on the Japanese company to back up its insistence that electronic defects had nothing to do with reported acceleration problems suffered by its cars.

There was also a very interesting article published Sunday by Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post (registration required) that explored why it is so difficult for Toyota — or any company that markets complex products full of electronics — to definitively get to the root of the problem.

After receiving complaints about unintended acceleration, the company has to try to reproduce the incident, and then try to determine what may have caused it, Ahrens noted.

Then follows a process of elimination. It’s not dissimilar to a doctor diagnosing an illness: Take a thorough reading of the symptoms, then begin eliminating causes. Treat what you think is the illness. If it doesn’t go away, treat your second guess at the illness.

Toyota appears from the start to have removed its electronic throttle control from the list of possible causes of the runaway acceleration and focused on two mechanical issues: floor mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals.

Ahrens draws a parallel between Toyota’s predicament and that of software developers, who test and test and test their product before releasing it, only to have glitches and errors they never envisioned pop up during public use.

If you put a lot of parts together to form a complex electromechanical machine and make it talk to itself via software, it can behave, sometimes, in ways you cannot anticipate. It can fail for reasons you cannot anticipate.

That’s the problem Toyota faces. And, after thorough testing by Toyota, NHTSA and garage mechanics trying to win the $1 million prize, no single answer may be found. Obviously, this will not stop juries from awarding damages in the liability lawsuits already filed.