Consumer Fraud

Critics question the credibility of new Toyota report

The Los Angeles Times reported that Toyota has “called in the big guns” to help restore its credibility and revamp its tarnished image in the wake of its record recalls. The auto manufacturer has enlisted the help of Menlo Park, California-based engineering and consulting firm Exponent Inc., which has helped extricate numerous corporations from legal quagmires and other jams.

“The first thing you know is that when Exponent is brought in to help a company, that company is in big trouble,” environmental consultant Cindy Sage told the Los Angeles Times.

Sage specializes in electromagnetic interference, which many safety experts and industry professionals believe could be the cause of Toyota’s sudden, unintended acceleration problem.

According to its web site, Exponent prides itself on providing “in-depth scientific research and analysis” of a broad range of subjects such as terrorist bombs, hurricane damage, nuclear generator core failure, and secondhand smoke “in extremely short time frames.”

Faced with an escalating number of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits that allege sudden, unintentional acceleration caused vehicular crashes, Toyota is starting to fortify its defense and cast doubt that electronics contribute to the widespread acceleration problems.

But many engineers, safety and industry experts, attorneys, and academics criticize Exponent’s work, asserting that the company “tends to deliver to clients the reports they need to mount a public defense,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Stanton Glantz, a UC San Francisco cardiologist who keeps tabs on the tobacco industry, is familiar with Exponent’s work and is surprised that Toyota chose the company to compile a report on the alleged electronic throttle problems.

“If I were Toyota, I wouldn’t have picked somebody like Exponent to do analysis. I would have picked a firm with more of a reputation of neutrality,” Glantz told the Los Angeles Times.

Exponent has compiled a 56-page report that attempts to clear the electronic throttle from culpability in the sudden acceleration cases. Toyota steadfastly insists that the sudden acceleration accidents are isolated incidents caused by driver error, floor mat interference with the accelerator pedal, or faulty sticking gas pedal mechanisms. The company staunchly denies that electronics could play a role in the acceleration incidents.

Mike Gaulke, Exponent’s executive chairman and an 18-year veteran of the company, defended Exponent’s credibility, telling the Los Angeles Times that it often found results that clients did not want to hear, but could not mention any specific examples.

Gaulke also told the Times that 65% of the company’s revenue comes from materials for litigation.

Exponent’s Toyota study compared the performance of six 2002-2008 model year Toyota and Lexus vehicles to a Honda Accord, concluding that the electronic throttle behaved normally when researchers tried to disrupt its normal function.

The Exponent study did not include sophisticated tests for electromagnetic interference of the electronic system. It simply denies an electronic problem exists because it couldn’t be replicated in the test vehicles.