From the Associated Press: US launches criminal probe into Toyota safety
WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Toyota Motor Corp.’s safety problems and the Securities and Exchange Commission was probing what the automaker told investors, the company disclosed Monday. Newly released internal documents showed that Toyota officials visited with U.S. regulators years ago who “laughed and rolled their eyes in disbelief” over safety claims.
… The government could be looking into product safety law violations or whether Toyota made false statements to a federal safety agency involving unintended acceleration or the Prius braking system, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. The SEC is seeking documents related to unintended acceleration as well as to its disclosure policies and practices, Toyota said.
… House investigators said they believe Toyota intentionally resisted the possibility that electronic defects caused unintended acceleration in their vehicles and then misled the public into thinking its recalls would fix all the problems.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who will run Tuesday’s hearing, said documents and interviews demonstrate that the company relied on a flawed engineering report to reassure the public that it found the answer to the problem.
In a letter to Toyota, Stupak said a review of consumer complaints shows company personnel identified sticking pedals or floor mats as the cause of only 16 percent of the unintended acceleration reports.
Some 70 percent of the acceleration incidents in Toyota’s customer call database involved vehicles that are not subject to the 2009 and 2010 floor mat and “sticky pedal” recalls.
In a letter to NHTSA, Stupak’s committee raised questions about whether the agency lacked the expertise to review defects in vehicle electronics and said NHTSA was slow to respond to 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration from 2000 to 2010.
Stupak’s committee wants to know if Toyota took advantage of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations “slow” response to these sudden acceleration complaints by participating in a recall that only involved floor mats, rather than vehicle electronics. In an internal memo obtained by the government, Toyota officials claimed that the limited recall — as opposed to an extensive investigation of the vehicle electronics and subsequent recall/repair of the electronics systems — had saved Toyota an estimated $100 million.
Unfortunately US government ownership of Chrysler (9.85%) and General Motors (61%) has severely tarnished the appearance of impartiality with respect to any future government investigations of Toyota or any other automobile manufacturer that could be considered a competitor of Chrysler or GM. Such is the price of industrial nationalization. However, these incidents, and the NHTSA’s involvement, date back at least to 2004, long before the government became financially entangled with GM or Chrysler.
If there truly is a problem with the electronic acceleration controls in these automobiles, then Toyota owes its customers a complete recall/repair plan to correct the problem. They should also be subjected to criminal penalties if it is discovered that they purposefully ignored the problem simply because government watchdogs were slow to act. Such behavior obviously violates commonly accepted “good faith” standards for manufactures of consumer goods.
Perhaps the biggest irony in this case is the high probability that Ford Motor Company would end up capturing the biggest piece of any market share that Toyota might lose.