Four years ago, at the height of the Toyota sudden-acceleration debacle, Holman W. Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, pooh-poohed the “scare,” writing that “overwhelming evidence that the real menace to drivers is their own right foot stamping the gas instead of the brake.”
Megan McArdle, noting that the age of the drivers skewed high, wrote, “you don’t usually make a profit by killing your customers. It’s too risky, in this age of nosy regulators and angry consumer activists.”
The problem with these contrarian pieces was they ignored compelling evidence available at the time that Toyota’s reported problems were far more extensive than those of other carmakers.
Okay. Nobody’s perfect.
But then last week, Toyota agreed to not a civil but a criminal settlement in which it agreed to a 12-page statement of facts. In it, Toyota admitted its own design problems were squarely at fault and that it engaged in an extensive cover-up to avoid recalls and to hide these problems from the public and from federal regulators.
Normally, op-ed writers whose hunches are proven wrong by an extensive criminal investigation, including corporation admissions, would do the normal thing, which is to ignore the new revelations and find something else to write about. And that, McArdle, to her credit, one supposes, has done.
Jenkins, though, courageously ignoring what is now an established record, demonstrates that no amount of evidence, again, including a corporate admission, can change opinions on The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Let’s look at the record.
In the settlement Toyota admits that it knew about not one but two accelerator design problems, which it repeatedly and actively concealed from regulators and consumers.
The carmaker knew that it had a serious problem with the positioning of its accelerator pedal, which was so low to the floor that it could become entangled with floormats. It ordered a redesign for future models, but resisted implementing recalls for at least two years after it knew about the problem. As a cost-saving measure, those redesigns were delayed until the model’s next full redesign, which come every three to five years.
Toyota then discovered a second, unrelated accelerator problem, what it referred to as a “sticky pedal” and quietly ordered a redesign. Several months later, as its sudden-acceleration PR crisis grew, the facts statement says, it “decided to suspend the pedal design changes in the United States, and to avoid memorializing that suspension, in order to prevent NHTSA from learning about the sticky pedal” and later “decided to characterize the changes as minor to prevent their detection by NHTSA.”
And even after Toyota finally agreed to recall five models, the statement says, it knew that three other models had similar problems, but didn’t inform regulators and didn’t plan to recall them.
As the press forced Toyota’s hand on the sticky-pedal problem, the carmaker misled federal regulators about the seriousness of the issue. As the statement says:
The presentation that TOYOTA gave to NHTSA on January 19, 2010 downplayed the seriousness of reports of sticky pedal in Europe. When, after the presentation, a TOYOTA employee who attended the presentation reviewed the actual reports from Europe, and saw that they included such phrases as “‘out of control’” and “‘safety issue,’” he was said to exclaim “Idiots! Someone will go to jail if lies are repeatedly told. I can’t support this.”
Toyota finally agreed to NHTSA pressure to recall the remaining three models, but then debated how to conceal its earlier knowledge of their problems, with one quality-control leader saying in an email that Toyota shouldn’t admit that it already had known about the problem. “…[I]f we say, ‘Everything is the same as Camry, etc.’, they may come after us by saying ‘Why didn’t you report when we agreed last time?”
In short, this is the very picture of a company endangering its customers to preserve its margins.
So it’s odd, to say the least, to see Jenkins revisit the issue in the wake of these damning admissions and essentially contend, based on basically nothing, that the problem was all about floormats, that dealers or drivers were basically responsible, and that Toyota panicked and took the blame (emphasis mine):
The 2009 crash that set off the Toyota panic was laid almost immediately to an improper, ill-fitting floor mat incorrectly installed in a loaner car by a San Diego Lexus dealer. This week the company agreed not to contest a single count of “wire fraud” related to supposedly failing to alert the public about the danger posed by floor mats—though Toyota in 2007 had already warned dealers about the problem and recalled floor mats in certain Toyota and Lexus vehicles.