I’ve been following the hoopla surrounding Toyota for several months now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that our government is holding Toyota to a double standard – criticizing the company for not being forthright and honest, yet unwilling to uphold the same standards within its own ranks. The recent media reports that senior federal officials blocked the release of findings that could favor Toyota in some crashes related to unintended acceleration are unthinkable. It’s imperative that the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) release the findings of their extensive testing and set the record straight. To do otherwise will undermine the credibility of an agency charged with overseeing the safety of all vehicles in the country fairly and scientifically.
Throughout this process, even as the media was wrapped up in detailing Toyota’s troubles, there were some who questioned the harsh treatment of a foreign-owned car company at a time when the government was providing life support for some of Detroit’s ailing car manufacturers. Let’s not forget that the feds bailed-out General Motors to the tune of over $52 billion – at taxpayer expense – as it went through Chapter 11 proceedings in 2009. Even today, taxpayers retain a 61 percent stake in the company. In this light, the assault on a foreign-owned competitor – though perhaps innocent – could easily be perceived as a savvy and self-serving business move executed by the majority shareholder.
Meanwhile, Toyota is arguably as “American” a company as GM, Ford or Chrysler. Toyota employs nearly 30,000 workers, and creates another 163,000 indirect jobs through its operations in the U.S. For the second year in a row, Cars.com ranked the Camry as the most American vehicle on the road today. The company had two other vehicles in the top ten – the Tundra and the Sienna – more than any other auto manufacturer.
My former colleagues at the Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), as the arm of an administration that has overseen the bailout of domestic car companies, need to apply the same standards to all manufacturers and expect the same level of disclosure from all companies. Other companies have issued large recalls this past year. GM and Honda have recalled millions of vehicles in 2010, and Ford recalled over 4 million in 2009. Despite this, headlines and federal investigators have maintained laser-focus scrutiny on Toyota alone.
And safety advocates and their trial lawyer allies seem more interested in lawsuits against Toyota than in finding the truth. They have publicly questioned the scientific validity of the findings provided by U.S. DOT, claiming that data taken from vehicles’ “black boxes” is not reliable. Some have also questioned the expertise of panels set up by the National Academies and NASA. With hundreds of lawsuits pending against Toyota, the fact that U.S. DOT is not releasing the information that backs up their findings simply adds fuel to this litigious fire.
The bottom line is that Toyota is far from the bad guy in this situation. When Toyota was asked to testify in front of Congress, the company’s CEO traveled promptly to Washington from half a world away. When the company was asked to turn over documents, it did just that. Toyota admitted its mistakes, complied with all of Congress and the administration’s demands, paid fines unmatched in the history of recalls, and appears to be moving forward with a revamped set of safety standards, which cover both technology and company infrastructure. Most importantly, in response to accusations that the company lacked transparency, Toyota instituted a new committee (we love committees in the Beltway) to oversee quality and safety, and recently announced that they would make more electronic data readers available to the public. When the U.S. government blocks this effort, it is at least hypocritical and at worst unethical.
Important safety issues should be resolved through an examination of the facts, not via politics or speculation. U.S. DOT must release the complete findings of the Toyota investigation to the public and start treating Toyota the same way it does other auto manufacturers.
Suhail A. Khan is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. and served at the U.S. Department of Transportation in the George W. Bush Administration.