UPDATE March 19, 2014
The U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday that Toyota Motor Corporation will pay $1.2 billion to settle a criminal probe into whether the automaker handled reports of safety issues in its vehicles properly.
The agreement ends a four-year investigation into sudden unintended acceleration complaints dating back to the late 2000s. The issue first gained national attention after an off-duty California highway patrol officer and members of his family were killed in a crash.
“The $1.2 billion payment represents the largest criminal penalty imposed on a car company in U.S. history,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “This is appropriate given the extent of the deception carried out by Toyota in this case. Put simply, Toyota’s conduct was shameful. It showed a blatant disregard for systems and laws designed to look after the safety of consumers.”
Rather than immediately disclosing and correcting identified safety issues, says Holder, Toyota “made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to Members of Congress.” In addition, “they concealed from federal regulators the extent of problems that some consumers encountered with sticking gas pedals and unsecured or incompatible floor mats that could cause these unintended acceleration episodes.”
And, “while Toyota conducted a limited recall of some vehicles with floor mat issues in September 2009, the company delayed a broader recall until early 2010 – despite internal tests warning of the dangers posed by other, unrecalled vehicle models.”
The Justice Department will defer prosecution of Toyota for three years, says Holder, as long as the company complies with the agreement and continues to cooperate with federal authorities.
“But let me be clear,” he said, “the department has not, and will not, consent to foreclose criminal prosecution if the terms of this agreement are not rigorously honored.”
Toyota still reportedly faces a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation as well as a number of civil lawsuits.
UPDATE February 7, 2014
Israeli economic news provider MarkerWeek has published an article on Toyota whistleblower Betsy Benjaminson, who now lives in Sderot, a western Negev city in the southern district of Israel. The story highlights Benjaminson’s moral struggle and reasoning behind her decision to reveal Toyota’s alleged cover-up of the unintended acceleration issues affecting thousands of its vehicles.
During her career as a translator, Benjaminson translated documents from almost every major company in Japan including Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Nissan and Toyota.
“But this was different,” Benjaminson said in an interview with MarkerWeek, adding that as the most experienced of a team of translators, she was given the job of editing the translated documents.
“I got to see thousands of documents. And slowly, I began to see the pattern: thousands of who say ‘my car suddenly accelerated, and many Toyota public relations documents, they say something completely different,’” she said. “Dots started to connect, and I could not go back.”
Benjaminson delved further into the scandal surrounding Toyota, translating more documents and consulting with leading safety experts to put together a complete picture, reports MarkerWeek. Eventually, she became convinced that Toyota knew about flaws in its system and hid it for fear of damaging its image. Finally, ignoring the advice of her attorneys, she began leaking incriminating documents to journalists and contacting the victims, a decision she was eventually dismissed for.
When asked why she jeopardized her career and her family’s financial situation to start a war against a huge corporation, she was not sure how to answer.
“This is a complicated question,” she said. “A lonely man whose life was destroyed and his family killed—as he tries to give justice to such a large corporation, it is almost impossible. I feel endless empathy for the victims. When you encounter such cases, and you have information that can help people, you are at a crossroads: You can leave your emotions out and stay a screw in the legal machine. Or you can do what I did, [that is,] to cheat the machine. I cheated the machine. Cheated a bit because I realized that the machine is broken, and if I do nothing, more people will die and it will be on my conscience.”
Her decision to leak the Toyota documents came at huge personal cost, says Benjaminson, but she would not change it if given the chance.
“I make half today of what I earned before I started to leak the documents. I lost two large customers, one when I started to leak [the information] and another when I revealed my identity,” she said.
“It’s the price I pay, but that’s okay. If I [didn’t do] that, what would happen? [I would have] worked another 10-20 years and died. This way at least there is something I did in my life that might positively affect other people.”
A translation of the original MarkerWeek story was provided to Interference Technology by Betsy Benjaminson.
UPDATE March 19, 2013
EMC expert Keith Armstrong, who consulted on the documents, has given Interference Technology a statement on the problem:
“Hopefully this article will help the world to realize that electronics are not reliable enough for safety-critical applications – such as controlling the throttle of an automobile – without:
a) Special skills and techniques being employed in their design (IEC 61508 is the source document for these, first published 2000)
b) Compliance with appropriate Functional Safety standards (ISO 26262 is the auto industry’s attempt at such a standard, first published in 2011)
c) Added costs
d) Finally, approval by an Independent Functional Safety Assessor, without which no sales or operation or vehicles can occur (as has already been happening in the rail and aviation industries since 2003 or so.)
UL, TUV, Intertek, etc. have had departments dedicated to providing this type of assessment service for well over a decade now, and the auto industry should use them.
But even when the auto industry eventually manages to deliver complete vehicles for which they say all of the safety-critical electronics have been designed from scratch to comply with ISO 26262 (perhaps in 2018?) – as far as I know they have no plans to get their vehicles approved by Independent Functional Safety Assessors.
At least two major automakers have now proved that we can’t trust them to tell the truth when they claim that their auto control electronics are safe enough. So why should we trust them when they eventually (at least 15 years behind rail and aviation) claim compliance with a Functional Safety standard?
Without the approval of each new model of vehicle by an Independent Functional Safety Assessor, we can have no confidence whatsoever that the auto industry has designed and manufactured their electronics, and hence their cars, to be safe enough.”
March 13, 2013
Officials announced a few weeks ago that Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to pay a $29 million settlement to end lawsuits accusing the Japanese car manufacturer of misleading people by issuing false statements in regards to safety issues related to unintended acceleration.
“We are confident that no problems exist in our electronic throttle systems in our vehicles,” Jim Lentz, the CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., testified in February 2012. He also reported Toyota did not find “any malfunction that caused unintended acceleration.”
However, Toyota documents recently analyzed by Keith Armstrong, Antony Anderson and Brian Kirk of the UK and automotive engineer Neil Hannemann of California reportedly directly contradict Toyota’s assertion that the vehicles have no electronic problems. The documents were translated from Japanese to English by translator Betsy Benjaminson, who also initially discovered the discrepancies in Toyota’s claims. The documents were made public Wednesday, March 13.
‘Is Toyota Telling the Truth About Sudden Acceleration?’, asks law.com in a breaking article chronicling the alleged cover-up. “The experts don’t believe that [driver error or floor mat slippage] explain the surge in complaints. Instead, they believe precisely what Toyota has for many years steadfastly denied: that the problem is rooted in electronics,” the article says.
According to the article, an undated spreadsheet showed “test results of an engine’s electronic throttle control system, including numerous faults that the document said cause sudden acceleration.”
Other translated documents reportedly illustrate Toyota’s willingness to “define problems as they wish them to be, regardless of the facts.”
“Previously, when I was in charge of Hilux [a Toyota 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,” one document, an undated email from an unnamed engineer, stated.
However, the article says, despite numerous consumer complaints, incidents and testimonials from engineers, plaintiffs have made slow progress convincing the courts that electronic malfunctions are real because expert findings cannot always be replicated in tests.
“We have the burden of proof, and we should,” Molly O’Neill said. O’Neill works with the dean of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) trial lawyers, Thomas Murray of Sandusky, Ohio. “But you cannot open up the car and show what went wrong. That’s the nature of electronics.”
– Belinda Stasiukiewicz and Aliza Becker