In his book, Doubt is Their Product, former Assistant Secretary of Energy, David Michaels, explains his firsthand account of how clever public relations by corporations and industry used multi-million dollar tactics to magnify scientific uncertainty and influence policy decisions related to dangerous products. Mr. Michaels quotes a cigarette executive as saying, “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of facts’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
According to Mr. Michaels, defense consultants have increasingly worked to skew scientific literature and magnify scientific uncertainty to distort public opinion and prevent public policy changes that would require manufacturing and products to become safer. To increase public confusion, according to Mr. Michaels, the strategy is to dismiss research conducted by the scientific community as “junk science” and elevate science conducted by product defense specialists as “sound science.” It now appears that Toyota may be taking the same approach in its public relations battle to win the hearts and minds of the public as well as those in Congressional oversight positions related to the crisis over sudden unintended acceleration events (SUA’s).
A recent Wall Street Journal article claims that a number of Toyota electronic data recorders (EDR’s) have been examined from vehicles that were claimed to have experienced a sudden unintended acceleration event. The WSJ article says that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has examined these EDR’s and found that the SUA’s were caused by driver error not electronic design problems. According to Sean Kane, President of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., a safety research consulting firm, this information was leaked by Toyota to the Wall Street Journal in a plan to get public opinion on its side, i.e., to create “Doubt”.
Despite the WSJ article, the Department of Transportation told the Product Safety and Liability Reporter that it has “neither drawn conclusions in the ongoing investigation of the Toyota vehicles sudden unintended accelerations, nor released data,” some of which found its way into a July 13th story in the Wall Street Journal. That article claims that data from dozens of Toyota event recorders suggested “driver error and not an electronics problem with the electronic throttle control system used by Toyota.” Oddly, it seems that the Journal article prompted a 1% rise in Toyota stock according to the Product Safety and Liability Reporter.
Kane pointed to complaints from Toyota owners about incidents of sudden unintended acceleration of lengthy duration, at highway speeds, where the driver already was using the accelerator, and multiple incidents in the same vehicle with different drivers at the wheel as evidence that floormats and sticky pedals are not the cause for the many Toyota SUA events. According to Kane, Toyota’s reported analysis of dozens of event data recorders, out of more than 37,000 customer complaints, does not explain how driver error could be the source of incidents nor why the large jump in complaints occurred when the company began equipping its vehicles with electronic throttle control systems in 2002. Kane stated further:
Toyota has always stated that the accuracy of the black boxes (EDRs) has never been scientifically validated. In fact, the company (Toyota) fights to keep the data from being used in litigation because it says EDR data isn’t reliable.
Kane also noted that many of the SUA events that have been reported would not activate the EDR system. The EDR generally only records data in crashes where the crash is severe enough to deploy or nearly deploy an air bag. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great deal of reporting about the Toyota SUA crisis lately. Kane believes that “advertising pressure” and increased media focus on the BP disaster in the Gulf have led to a lull in reporting on sudden acceleration events. However, Kane says that his firm “gets reports every day, so the problem is still very much out there.” The television ad campaign by Toyota – which had to cost tens of millions and is designed to repair Toyota’s tarnished image – has been effective.
In the late 1980s, Audi faced a similar problem of sudden unintended acceleration events in its cars. As a result, Audi sponsored a good bit of “scientific” research that pointed to driver error rather than vehicle design as the cause for the unintended accelerations. No doubt, Toyota is attempting to link its problems to this research and driver error. Many believe the WSJ article is just the tip of the “Doubt” iceberg.
Toyota and the public may not remember that a number of NHTSA recalls on Audi vehicles resulted from the Audi SUA crisis of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Few folks recall that Audi changed the design of its vehicles. Hopefully, NHTSA will not allow Toyota to create enough “Doubt” to escape responsibility for the safety problems in its vehicles. Probably some of the best evidence that Toyota is making an effort to create “Doubt” is the fact that Toyota told Congressional leaders that it had hired an independent company, Exponent, to evaluate its SUA events. Congressional leaders quickly discovered in documents and interviews, however, that Toyota had not in fact hired Exponent to help “independently” evaluate SUA events in its vehicles. Instead, Toyota’s lawyers hired Exponent to help it defend Toyota in litigation related to SUA events.
Even more telling, documents and testimony provided to Congressional members revealed that Exponent, as part of its analysis process, made no written notes of any research it conducted for Toyota. Neither did Exponent have any written testing or analysis protocol or plan in place to determine the cause of Toyota SUA’s. How can anything other than “junk science” masquerading as legitimate scientific research be created if the results are not written down and there is no written scientific method for analysis in place? Despite the lack of an organized plan, Exponent reported more than 11,000 man hours of work on the SUA project for Toyota. Clearly, Toyota is not trying to solve the problem, but is attempting to produce a new product – DOUBT – and that product is a clever defense strategy. So it’s quite evident that Toyota is using its old ploy of blaming drivers who are victims of their safety-related problems.
Sources: Associated Press, Wall Street Journal and Product Safety and Liability Reporter
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