The documents make it clear that in-house lawyers and public relations personnel worked together to craft a strategy. Christopher Reynolds, the U.S. general counsel, advocated defending the electronic throttle control by seeking "validation" by a panel of experts. Using the Japanese word for building consensus to act, he wrote in December 2009 that he hoped "we can finalize a nemawashi plan this week and begin to implement it."
One of the weaknesses in Toyota's defense was flagged in an email sent by assistant GC Webster Burns the following April. Commenting on a demand letter from NHTSA that the company pay a $16.375 million fine for delaying its sticky pedal report, Burns wrote: "We need to keep in mind that we continue to find significant differences within Toyota about the significance of the sticky-pedal phenomenon which will be exploited by NHTSA in any litigation."
Some documents require translation by specialists. An undated spreadsheet showed test results of an engine's electronic throttle control system, including numerous faults that the document said cause sudden acceleration. "My guess is they were fixed in development," says Hannemann, who has been hired by plaintiffs suing Toyota, and also by the defense in a suit against a Toyota dealer. "But this shows you have to find issues during testing. And how do you know you catch them all?"
Several documents illustrated what the experts describe as a propensity of Toyota employees to define problems as they wish them to be, regardless of the facts. One is Toyota's analysisperformed three days after Saylor's deathof car owners' complaints received by NHTSA. Some drivers described their own harrowing experiences. Several were adamant that theirs had nothing to do with floor mats, yet that didn't always matter to Toyota's reviewer.
One woman riding in a 2006 Toyota Tacoma said that it was the third such experience she'd had with the car. "Two times previously Toyota has replaced the cruise control," she reported. "This is not a cruise control problem. This is a gas pedal issue. I was told previously the mat was under the gas pedal. This is hardly the problem." In the column provided for the cause, the reviewer wrote: "The mat catches (specifics unknown)." It was the most common cause listed on the chart, regardless of what the drivers had to say. Antony Anderson, an independent electrical consultant who specializes in electrical machine and control system failure investigations (and has provided independent expert testimony for plaintiffs who sued Toyota), says the document shows how Toyota's "poor analysis" makes it appear that the incidence of stuck floor mats "is very much higher than it really is."
Another example of preemptive answers appeared in an undated email written by an engineer. He asked if acceleration can be caused by radio wave interference. Then he recounted his earlier experience with interference: "Previously, when I was in charge of Hilux [a truck model] in the Japan domestic service division, I experienced an engine stall malfunction due to radio wave interference from a nearby U.S. naval base in Yokohama. At that time I was told that it could absolutely never occur." Keith Armstrong, an expert in electronic circuit design as well as electromagnetic interference (EMI), says the idea that radio waves can't cause electronic malfunctions is absurd: "I know of no expert in this field who doesn't work for the auto industry (and some who do) who would ever make such a ridiculous claim." Armstrong has advised electronic suppliers on EMI safety issues, and he has also twice advised NHTSA, at its request. (He has not been involved in Toyota litigation.)
Anderson and Hannemann are even more troubled by an email exchange between Michiteru Kato, a general manager based in Japan, and Tinto in D.C. In messages dated October 11, 2007, the two were discussing television coverage of sudden acceleration in the Tacoma. Tinto wondered whether the mothership was looking into the situation. Actually, Kato replied, headquarters had not received any technical field reports from dealers or regional offices "because as you know, the sudden acceleration or surge issue usually can't be duplicated by the dealer and they can't find any abnormality on the vehicle. In those cases the dealer does not make the field report." Consequently, he added, "Toyota does not know what's happening on the Tacoma vehicles and just started the investigation."
Hannemann found it more than odd that Toyota was, as the email makes plain, getting information about its own problem cars from NHTSA, the media, and Internet forums. "You should be telling NHTSA things, not the other way around," says Hannemann, who has worked as a product development engineer at Chrysler Corporation and as a chief engineer at the Ford Motor Company. (Toyota says that in April 2010 it established a new program to investigate all reports of unintended acceleration. It attempts to contact individuals within 24 hours to arrange a full analysis of their vehicles.)
The documents also revealed introspective moments during which executives considered where their company went wrong. One Japanese exec, identified only as Takimoto, wrote in March 2010: "All of the current problems were caused by the low level of completeness of vehicle development during the time period when I was in charge. I am really very sorry." Another executive ruefully admitted in February 2010 that quality was hurt by the fact that "the numbers of prototype vehicles, production vehicles, and quality assurance test vehicles were dramatically reduced," as were "test vehicles for evaluation and quality verification."
The experts who reviewed the documents offered their own assessments. Brian Kirk, the founding director of Robinson Systems Engineering Ltd, which specializes in safety critical software and systems for the transportation industry (and is not involved in Toyota litigation), says that the engineers "seem to be genuinely trying to understand the problems and provide practical solutions within the constraints of legacy and time pressure. However, there is no apparent safety engineering process forming a rigorous basis for understanding and solving the issues." Hannemann also finds a general lack of rigor. When technicians investigate complaints, they don't seem to press to find the root cause. "It seems that their problem solving is focused on something that's predetermined," he notes. And if they're not going to rigorously test cars prior to production, then they need to listen carefully to complaints from consumers, who are essentially doing the testing for them. But the company wasn't doing that either, he says.