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Toyota response to complaints takes on a confrontational tone

Special teams are sent to investigate, and sometimes discredit, reported problems.

April 08, 2010|By Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger
  • The accelerator pedal assembly of a Toyota Avalon is connected to monitoring equipment at a demonstration at the company's Torrance headquarters last month.
The accelerator pedal assembly of a Toyota Avalon is connected to monitoring… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

When its customers claim their Toyota or Lexus vehicles suddenly accelerate, the company is at the ready with teams of technicians that it can deploy rapidly to examine the reports -- and in some cases discredit them.

The teams, dubbed SMART for "swift market analysis and research team," were publicly unveiled by Toyota on Thursday, but have been deployed at least seven times in the last month.

They scored big successes when they helped undermine a recent claim by a San Diego motorist who said his Prius took him on a 20-minute high-speed ride down the freeway and another by a New York housekeeper who said her Prius flew into a wall even though her foot was on the brake.

Toyota's critics say it has every right to dispute inaccurate claims, and its legions of devoted customers have cheered the rigorous response on Internet forums.

The SMART teams are part of a much broader public relations and legal strategy Toyota is using to confront critics, an approach that has toughened in recent weeks. Toyota is now staking out its position before major scientific investigations into sudden acceleration have gotten started, and before federal officials have completed regulatory reviews. Last week, federal safety regulators enlisted the government's top technical experts to examine the problem.

Critics say the company is acting prematurely and in some cases spreading misinformation.

"It is a very aggressive and misleading campaign," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Toyota can't win this battle by slinging mud, but they are trying."

In at least one case, a SMART inspection backfired, adding ammunition to a lawsuit against the company. The team discovered that a repair under the recall campaign for sticking accelerator pedals had not been properly completed.

Toyota's strategy represents a big change in the last six weeks. In February, Toyota Chief Executive Akio Toyoda told Congress, "As the CEO of the company, I will make sure that we will never ever blame the customers going forward."

Exactly what that meant is not quite clear, because the company said it now intends to dispute the reports of its customers when it sees something questionable.

"When we see something that needs addressing, we're going to respond," company spokesman Mike Michels said. In some cases, customers have claimed sudden acceleration for mechanical behavior that involves "normal functions of a vehicle," Michels said.

He added, "We're getting a lot of stuff coming out of the woodwork."

Auto safety experts said Toyota has every right to defend itself against phony claims, but its approach has led to countercharges that the company is spreading outright falsehoods.

Ditlow is furious over an e-mail Toyota sent to some reporters, a copy of which he provided to The Times, alleging that he was on the payroll of plaintiff attorneys. Ditlow said that neither he nor his organization takes money from lawyers. Ditlow said his funding comes from nonprofit foundations, auto insurers, consumers and its publications.

Congressional investigators, meanwhile, complain that Toyota has sent multiple teams of lobbyists after them to sow discord among committee staffers. Toyota lobbyists are trying to disrupt the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's investigation, a staffer on the committee said.

Toyota has also taken on several congressional witnesses.

David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in February that his experiments showed potential flaws in Toyota's electronic engine control system.

Two Toyota employees resigned from a board of advisors for Gilbert's academic department.

Toyota then hired testing firm Exponent Inc., which helped the automaker put together a demonstration for the media at Toyota's U.S. sales headquarters in Torrance countering Gilbert's results point by point.

"It is unfortunate they felt the need to do that," Gilbert said. "I didn't expect Toyota would like what I found, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the response. What were they trying to prove, that they could squash me like a bug? Well, I suppose they could."

The attack on Gilbert has worried other academic experts that they could be the next target if they are critical of the company.

"Most of the academics completely support Gilbert," said Michael Pecht, director of an electronics reliability lab at the University of Maryland who has studied sudden acceleration for 10 years. "I think that there is a fear in the Toyota Exponent tactics."

Sean Kane, president of the consulting firm Safety Research and Strategies, has been another Toyota critic who the company has characterized as an operative of law firms.

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