What this demonstrates, in the age of YouTube and Wikileaks, is how hard it is for multinationals and their in-house counsel to keep a lid on their companies' internal data.
Many of the documents are marked "secret" and "confidential." They were provided by Betsy Benjaminson, a translator who has worked for several agencies that translate Toyota documents from the Japanese (and who translated several of those quoted in this article). She says that these shops work for law firms hired to assist the company in litigation.
Benjaminson provided these and many more documents last year to Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, who then wrote a letter to NHTSA expressing his concern that questions about electronics have not been resolved. Corporate Counsel showed Toyota the complete documents from which quotes were excerpted for this article; read the company's response here.
Benjaminson is revealing her identity for the first time here. She decided to go public because lives are at stake, she says. "Up to now," she adds, "the corporate PR megaphone has completely drowned out the victims."
Four experts agreed to review the documents independently and share their impressions. Keith Armstrong, Antony Anderson, and Brian Kirk are based in the United Kingdom; Neil Hannemann lives in California. All of them have decades of experience. The documents they reviewed date from as early as 2000; the most recent were written a few months after the congressional hearings in February and March 2010. They include many emails along with spreadsheets, flow charts, and diagrams.
On one important point the experts agree: There is no smoking gun that shows that Toyota identified and concealed an electronic defect that was responsible for crashes. But numerous documents, they say, undermine the corporation's repeated attempts to reassure the public, as exemplified by the testimony of Jim Lentz, the CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. In February 2010 Lentz told a House subcommittee: "We are confident that no problems exist in our electronic throttle systems in our vehicles." He went on to testify, "We have done extensive testing on this system, and we have never found a malfunction that caused unintended acceleration."
The documents seem to tell a different story. An email written by Hiroshi Hagiwara, a Toyota vice president in Washington, D.C., and sent to executives in Japan a month before the hearings hints at the turmoil beneath the surface. Hagiwara and Chris Tinto, a V.P. for technical and regulatory affairs and safety, had been talking about the U.S. investigation and an earlier one in Europe that also involved unintended acceleration (UA).
"Tinto is extremely pessimistic," Hagiwara wrote, "and is saying (public hearings, someone will go to jail, I can't completely take care of the pedal problem, etc.)." Tinto's primary concerns (according to Hagiwara): "For NHTSA, we said that our investigations in Europe found that the pedal return is a little slow at a slightly open position, and that there were no accidents, but this is not true. Last year's situation in Europe (many reports of sticking pedals and accidents, and a TI TS9-161 was filed on October 1, 2009) was not reported to NHTSA." That failure, Tinto said, "may be a violation of the TREAD Act"the federal law that requires car manufacturers that conduct recalls in foreign countries to report these to U.S. regulators.
Still speaking of Tinto, who worked for NHTSA in the 1990s before he was hired away by Toyota, Hagiwara continued: "He appears to question how Toyota has grasped and handled the overall UA problem (mat, accelerator pedal, ECU [electronic control unit], and electronic throttle systems, etc.)."
Hagiwara reminded the executives to be careful what they put in writing. He asked them to fax any investigative reports related to Europe. "It is OK to write various things to me in emails written in Japanese," he advised, "but as much as possible only send materials that would not be controversial if disclosed (namely, things that have been reviewed), and it is best, I think, to discuss things orally."