Consumer Fraud

NASA’s Toyota sudden-acceleration report flawed, researchers find

The study NASA conducted to determine if an electronic flaw could be responsible for sudden unintended acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles was the product of a collusion between trusted government agencies and powerful special interests, Safety Research & Strategies Inc. (SRS) reports on its website, and it has the facts to back up such a bold claim.

In its report “How NHTSA and NASA Gamed the Toyota Data,” SRS details how the owners of Quality Control Systems Corp. thoroughly analyzed the NASA report, which found no evidence of an electronic glitch behind Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem. Their findings: that the analytical methods NASA used were flawed, if not completely dishonest.

According to SRS, Quality Control Systems found that NASA and the NHTSA “based their conclusions about the possibility of an electronic cause on a series of unsupportable suppositions, miscoded data and secret warranty data reported by Toyota’s litigation defense experts, Exponent.”

Exponent is a Menlo Park, California-based engineering and consulting firm that has helped extricate numerous corporations from legal quagmires and other jams. According to its many critics, Exponent is a science-for-hire firm that conducts analyses which tend to “deliver to clients the reports they need to mount a public defense.”

OSHA director and Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels wrote that “Exponent’s scientists are prolific writers of scientific reports and papers. While some might exist, I have yet to see an Exponent study that does not support the conclusion needed by the corporation or trade association that is paying the bill.”

With this kind of criticism surrounding Exponent, it’s odd to think that NASA scientists would rely on Exponent’s data in conducting their own study, yet they did, despite the conflict of interest. As SRS explains, NASA scientists found “tin whiskers” on the potentiometer (electronic assisted) accelerator pedal from a Toyota vehicle that had experienced several instances of sudden unintended acceleration.

“Tin whiskers are crystalline structures, many times thinner than a human hair, which form on the tin solder used on printed circuit boards” and are “known to produce all kinds of varied and unpredictable electronic malfunction,” SRS explains. But NASA researchers didn’t properly analyze this “promising root cause” by expanding the study to determine the rate of incidence, nor did they look for the presence of these tin whiskers in other components that could influence throttle. Instead, they relied on Exponent’s data for that part of study, everything checked out clean, and NHTSA closed its investigation.

Quality Control Systems also found that the system of quantifying and categorizing sudden-acceleration incidents used by government researchers was flawed and thus likely led to inaccurate conclusions. When Quality Control Systems asked NHTSA officials for the exact dataset used in what, according to SRS, the agency called “the most exacting defect study the agency has ever performed in its history,” the firm was told that the data wasn’t retained.

When NHTSA agreed to replicate the data, Quality Control Systems noted that a key component of that data pool was improperly inflated, which led to the conclusion that the sudden-acceleration cause is not electronic.

Given the complex and technical nature of the NHTSA and NASA studies, the average American will have to accept their conclusions at face value and trust that the government is looking out for them. Data manipulation and flawed studies can almost be expected of some companies, but the federal government too?

As SRS concludes, “Toyota has followed the playbook well. What remains stunning is NHTSA and NASA’s participation in the process and their willingness to co-opt their own reputations.”

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