Toyota Takes Apart Professor Gilbert’s Testimony and ABC News Appearance – Piece by Piece

ABC News has already partially retracted the broadcast.

by on Mar.08, 2010

ABC TV did not - at a minimum - accurately describe what was depicted. The car was in neutral not drive when this footage was aired claiming to show unintended acceleration.

During a live webcast for the media this afternoon, Toyota Motors Sales U.S.A. presented in great detail what are serious charges about the “validity, methodology and credibility” of a demonstration of alleged “unintended acceleration” in a Toyota Avalon by Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University in front of Congress and depicted in ABC News broadcasts and on-line segments.  (For our previous report: Click Here)

The Toyota charges are reminiscent of similar ones made by Harry Pierce of General Motors against NBC news, after GM learned that NBC news had rigged the burning of a pickup truck with explosives at the height of a controversy over side-saddle gas tanks used in GM vehicles. In that case, the president of NBC news ultimately, after much legal maneuvering, lost his job. The talking head involved is still successfully pursuing similar stories in the same sensational style. GM did, ultimately, recall the pickup trucks for leaky gas tanks.

Whether heads will roll at ABC remains to be seen, but, at a minimum, the network, which has already replaced the false footage it used in its original report on its website, will be forced to respond in detail, if not to ultimately retract its broadcast.

ABC news did not immediately respond to our request for comment. Gilbert declined comment, a new found reticence from one who was previously so publicly vocal.

Instead, ABC is covering this story – with its potentially harmful accusations against ABC on its website – as if ABC is somehow, miraculously, a disinterested bystander in this story.  for this disingenuous reply.

ABC is also using other sources, including Sean Kane, who works for product liability  lawyers as a foil against Toyota. Kane hired Gilbert to investigate Toyota it was revealed in Congressional testimony.

Make no mistake about it, ABC’s charges against Toyota – how they arose, how Gilbert came in front of  ABC’s uncritical cameras  and commentary, what fact checking ABC did, how ABC edited the damaging piece, what ABC did or didn’t  know when it aired the piece,  why its affiliates ran the piece without perspective  – is the story here.

This ABC story also calls into question, once again, the “ethics”  of broadcast news.People in my view should be mad as hell about it — until more answers are forthcoming. (Don’t hold your breath as the mainstream media will circle the wagons to protect ABC and their own similar practices.)

How Congressional Representatives act, given their long history of unaccountability, and given their comments at Toyota hearings post the Gilbert testimony – also remains to be seen.

Moreover, above all, I continue to be concerned about the owners of the recalled and other vehicles, including virtually every new car from other makers that uses electronic throttle controls, in this manic media environment.

Yes, alas yes, there are some deaths involved; but with NHTSA claiming 6,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of more injuries from distracted driving alone last year, it’s time for some badly needed perspective. Moreover, it is time for Congress and NHTSA to ban cell phone use of any kind. Now!

An analysis conducted by an engineering group, Exponent – also used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – as well as testing by Toyota, makes the following charges about Professor Gilbert’s demonstration:

  • The vehicle’s electronics were rewired and re-engineered in multiple ways, in a specific sequence, and under conditions that are “virtually impossible” to occur in real-world conditions without visible evidence.
  • Toyota vehicle electronic systems were “actively manipulated” to mimic a valid full-throttle condition,
  • Substantially similar results were “successfully created in other vehicles” by other manufacturers.

In the demonstration sensationalized on the eve of his testimony by ABC on February 22, Professor Gilbert, assisted by segment reporter Brian Ross, asserted that he had detected a “dangerous” flaw in the Toyota electronic control system that he alleged could lead to unintended acceleration.

The following day, Professor Gilbert offered a preliminary report of his findings in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Engineers at Exponent, one of the country’s leading engineering and scientific consulting firms, as well as Toyota engineers, have reviewed and recreated Gilbert’s demonstration with substantially similar results in representative vehicles of other makes, Toyota said.

Kristen Tabar, general manager of electronics systems, Toyota Technical Center, summarizes three of the major charges with the artificial nature of Professor Gilbert’s demonstration.

  • “First, an electrical circuit that has been re-engineered and rewired will not behave as it was originally designed and engineered,” said Tabar.
  • “Second, no automaker can or should be expected to design detection strategies for artificially created events in the absence of any evidence that such an event can occur in the real world.
  • “Third, if the artificial condition created by Professor Gilbert had occurred in the real world, it would have left readily detectable fingerprints.”

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6 Responses to “Toyota Takes Apart Professor Gilbert’s Testimony and ABC News Appearance – Piece by Piece”

  1. Michael Rose says:

    Not sure if the Toyota and GM experiences are the same but some believe the lesson to be learned from Harry Pearce’s decisive rebuttal to NBC’s 1992 story, issued via a global satellite uplink from GM headquarters, is that diversion can be an effective counterpunch. No one can condone the use of undisclosed rockets to jazz up the NBC story, or any falsification of testing or reporting, but in GM’s case the fact remained that leaking fuel from the gas tanks appeared to be igniting as a result of collisions and the subsequent fires injured and killed people. US Department of Transportation records revealed over 1800 people died between 1973 and 2000 in “fatal fire crashes” in GM’s C/K pickups. More than the Ford Pinto fires. After the President of NBC “resigned”, the network and most other news outlets lost interest in the story but people were still dying and GM was settling lawsuits to the tune of a reported $495 million and more. The company continued to say there weren’t any problems and resisted a recall of 9 million of its pickups. Some charged that company officials had knowingly made the decision to ignore the advice of their engineers and originally built the C/K pickups with a dangerous fuel tank placement because it would be easier to put a bigger tank there than to do the right thing. It was reported that they then resisted efforts to make safety improvements because the $23 changes was more than a consultant said the public’s safety was worth. Sound familiar?

    That said, Harry Pearce did institute an education program within GM to help bring these kind of issues forward from engineering and testing before vehicles reached production and turned into product liability and public relations nightmares. He was truly an effective leader and advocate for his client’s long term best interests. But he also knew how to clean up the messes they’d made by employing a public relations sleight of hand attack that demolished his opponents. Not sure if this is the lesson Toyota is embracing but if it is then it too will eventually lose the support of its customers and start its own long decline. It’s must better to fix the problems without haste and delay — no matter how expensive than try and shift the focus from faulty products to over zealous or ethically challenged reporters.

    • Ken Zino says:

      Michael fair points – up to a point. Yes, change the subject or counter attack is a tried, and sometimes untrue technique used by lawyers and news organizations.
      In my view the ABC “news” needs more discussion.

      As to GM side-saddle tanks, as I recall, statistically, they fell within the range of such problems when compared to the population and exposure.

  2. DGate says:

    Michael your last sentence is unwarranted since Toyota is addressing the problem at much expense.
    The shift of focus in the publics eye is Toyota’s response to the media frenzy.
    Drop the Dailey attacks and the show will be over.
    Seems to me the American public dote on sensationalism, you only have to ask anyone who doesn’t own or have an interest in Toyota and they respond with negativity. Suddenly everybody by listening to bad info is an expert.
    Look at our history if you are successful your above reproach but fail and you are relentlessly kicked and shunned while down. We frown on failure as it exposes weakness, something not tolerated in the good old USA.

  3. Harry says:

    Statistically there were FEWER fires in GM trucks than Ford or Dodge.

  4. Michael Rose says:

    You’re both right. There does appear to be a “kick them while they’re down” syndrome at work and I don’t have enough knowledge to make a real assessment of the problem(s). I’m not an engineer. But I would suggest that the actions and statements of the company on this issue since it first hit the headlines last November do not enhance its credibility. And are somewhat reminiscent of the old ways of the domestic car companies. Which, I think, is one of the reasons people are reacting so strongly. Suddenly the good guys seem to be just like the guys we’ve rejected. It’s like a relationship gone sour. That combined with the clear recognition that the agencies that are supposed to keep an eye on auto safety have been largely ineffective for a variety of reasons. It has the appearance of a national betrayal with a deeper emotional resonance that may exceed or overshadow the technical facts. Whatever the case it is a story that warrants fair but aggressive coverage. I applaud Ken and team at the Detroit Bureau for digging into the NHTSA database and doing the heavy lifting.

  5. DGate says:

    To isolate and ridicule the automotive industry is a bit naive when this is happening through out society. Our national institutions have gone sour, any you care to name from NASA to our banking to government. The planet is in peril with over population, too much pollution, our moral values are questionable, pending energy shortages Etc Etc.
    I think mankind has bigger problems than Toyota accelerators to worry about, but then again not seeing the forest for the trees is what got us to this point so nothing is likely to change.

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