The business press has done well documenting Toyota’s spiraling problems, including this morning’s news that U.S. regulators are accusing the carmaker of dragging its feet on fixing defective gas pedals.
But while other papers did good work, only the Los Angeles Times can claim the distinction of having been attacked by the carmaker well before its troubles were widely known, back when the company was still vigorously defending its safety record and its many loyal fans were still howling over press accounts that called attention to safety concerns about the company.
On December 23, Toyota posted on its website this statement:
Today the Los Angeles Times published an article that wrongly and unfairly attacks Toyota’s integrity and reputation.
While outraged by the Times’ attack, we were not totally surprised. The tone of the article was foreshadowed by the phrasing of a lengthy list of detailed questions that the Times emailed to us recently. The questions were couched in accusatory terms.
Despite the tone, we answered each of the many questions and sent them to the Times. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the article that appeared today, and in particular by the fact that so little of our response to the questions appeared in the article and much of what was used was distorted.
Toyota has a well-earned reputation for integrity and we will vigorously defend it.
The statement was signed by Irv Miller, group vice president for environmental and public affairs of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. and offered a link-through to its detailed replies to the LAT’s questions.
Miller was responding to a December 23 story, by Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger (an ex-colleague of mine from the Wall Street Journal), that ran under the headline:
Toyota found to keep tight lid on potential safety problems
A Times investigation shows the world’s largest automaker has delayed recalls and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects.
The story said that Toyota engineers found acceleration problems back in 2003, but only issued a recall last year.
During a routine test on its Sienna minivan in April 2003, Toyota Motor Corp. engineers discovered that a plastic panel could come loose and cause the gas pedal to stick, potentially making the vehicle accelerate out of control.
The automaker redesigned the part and by that June every 2004 model year Sienna off the assembly line came with the new panel. Toyota did not notify tens of thousands of people who had already bought vans with the old panel, however.
It wasn’t until U.S. safety officials opened an investigation last year that Toyota acknowledged in a letter to regulators that the part could come loose and “lead to unwanted or sudden acceleration.”
In January, nearly six years after discovering the potential hazard, the automaker recalled 26,501 vans made with the old panel.
By then the paper and the carmaker already had a history. It’s worth following the travel of this.
After Toyota recalled nearly four million cars in September, in the largest recall in the company’s history, the Times began a series of stories, starting here in October, looking more deeply into safety concerns at the company. While the company was blaming mechanical problems, starting with defective floor mats, and driver error, the Times’s reporting raised the possibility that safety issues went deeper than that. Eventually, in a November 29 story, by the same pair, the paper pointed to evidence that the problems centered on electronics:
Data point to Toyota’s throttles, not floor mats
Amid widening concern over acceleration events, Toyota has cited ‘floor mat entrapment.’ But reports point to another potential cause: the electronic throttles that have replaced mechanical systems.
That prompted what diplomats might call a frank public exchange of views between newspaper and carmaker, starting with an LAT editorial on December 5 that called on Toyota to look more deeply into its accelerator problems:
Toyota’s acceleration issue Blaming floor mats may not be enough; the automaker needs to look at its vehicles’ electronics.
Toyota’s reply, “A Healthy Discussion on Safety,” offered a stout defense of its handling of the accelerator problem:
The issue of unintended acceleration involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been thoroughly and methodically investigated on several occasions over the past few years. These investigations have used a variety of proven and recognized scientific methods. Importantly, none of these studies has ever found that an electronic engine control system malfunction is the cause of unintended acceleration.