On the day he died, Mark Saylor was doing what he did for a living: driving on a California highway. Only he wasn't driving his state-issued highway patrol car that day in late August 2009. Nor was he driving his own Lexus 250, which was at the dealer for servicing. He was driving a loaner with his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law on a leisurely family outing northeast of San Diegountil suddenly the car inexplicably took off. And no amount of braking could slow it down. As Saylor frantically tried to gain control, his brother-in-law called 911. "Our accelerator is stuck!" he told the dispatcher. "We're going 120!"
It wasn't just the speed that made this so dangerous. He read the sign they were passing: "End freeway one-half mile." The car was barreling toward a T-shaped intersection. When it got there, it hit another car, flew through a fence, rolled into a field, and burst into flames. The last word before the screams was, "Pray!"
This wasn't the first time that someone driving a Toyota had experienced sudden unintended acceleration. And it's not a problem that's unique to Toyota. But this was the event that Toyota cites as the beginning of its ongoing crisis.
How has it responded? The company has moved aggressively to contain the damage. Shifting floor mats were identified as a primary cause of many of these episodes. The company found that the loaner that the 45-year-old Mark Saylor was driving was equipped with mats that had never been intended for that car. Later, the company fingered accelerator pedals manufactured by a third party as prone to sticking. And Toyota says that many accidents are caused by drivers who inadvertently step on the gas instead of the brake.
As the crisis mounted, the company seemed overmatched. Critics charged that Toyota had sacrificed qualityits traditional strong suitin a rush to rack up sales. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which had been criticized for years for its willingness to pin sudden acceleration on driver error, suddenly got tough. Toyota recalled more than 8 million cars and paid fines totaling more than $50 million. Litigation, which had slowed down before the Saylor crash, roared back to life, fueled by the recalls and new complaints. And the political pressure, coupled with a Democratic Congress, led to hearings in Washington that drew global attention. Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda flew in from Japan to personally face the politicians' angry questions.
But then everything seemed to calm down. As the company battled two large multidistrict litigation class actions (MDLs) in California, it quietly settled some of the smaller lawsuits, including the one brought by the Saylors' survivors. The results of several investigations trickled in. Some had been commissioned by Toyota, and tended to include lots of technical data and to focus on floor mats and gas pedals. Then, in 2011, NHTSA concluded its own probe, which purported to be comprehensive, and Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (the parent agency of NHTSA), pronounced himself satisfied that Toyota's cars were safe.
Not only had the public uproar subsided, sales rebounded. Following a slump that was probably attributable as much to the economic downturn as the bad publicity, last year the company regained its status as the world leader in car sales. For Toyota, the long ordeal seemed over.
But some leading automotive experts aren't buying it. Last December, Toyota agreed to pay $1.3 billion to settle the MDL brought by car owners who claim that they suffered economic damages as a result of these events. Critics point out that it's a pretty big number for plaintiffs who weren't even directly affected. Beyond that, more than 200 personal injury cases remain to be resolved in the other MDL. The first bellwether trial had been scheduled for March, but it settled in January on confidential terms. At this writing, it's unclear how the matter will play out; some lawyers expect another large settlement.
But putting aside the politics and litigation, these automotive experts simply don't believe that the controversy has been put to rest. They acknowledge that some accidents are caused by drivers stomping on the gas instead of the brake, and some from defective floor mats and gas pedals. But the experts don't believe that these explain the surge in complaints. Instead, they believe precisely what Toyota has for many years steadfastly denied: that the problem is rooted in electronics.
These experts have found some surprising support from insiders at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who were close to the investigation NASA conducted into Toyota's acceleration problems a couple of years ago (and which LaHood cited when he discounted problems with its electronics). And now the experts say they've found additional corroboration in the communications of Toyota's own people. Corporate Counsel obtained scores of internal documents written by employees who were struggling to understand why cars were suddenly accelerating, and where the company could have gone wrong. Among the writers were executives, managers, lawyers, public relations specialists, and engineers. (Continue reading >>)