It is never good for a company to embarrass a government regulator, or ignore a software titan. Toyota has managed to do both.
The on-going saga of Toyota and its runaway cars went into overdrive yesterday when US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood very pointedly said,
"While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We're not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls."
The US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration have been highly criticized for their perceived lack of leadership, oversight and direction in regard to Toyota customers' runaway car complaints.
Stung by the criticism aimed his way, Secretary LaHood publicly blasted Toyota executives in Japan during an interview with AP for dragging their feet, for being "safety deaf" to the problem, and said that the US had to remind Toyota of its "legal obligations." He also said that it may be the largest safety issue ever faced by DOT.
"This is a big deal, this is a big safety issue," Secretary LaHood said.
Secretary LaHood all but said that Toyota can expect a large civil fine for how they have handled the situation. The current cost of the recall is estimated to top $900 million.
And it may climb.
DOT investigators are now going to seriously look to see whether there are any electronic throttle control problems which may be causing runaway cars, which Toyota strongly denies is the case.
However, Toyota's denials were undercut yesterday when word leaked out that Toyota officials had told US congressional investigators that "causes of unintended acceleration are ‘very, very hard’ to identify" and that sticking pedals are "unlikely to be responsible" for runaway cars traveling faster that 60 mph.
To cap off another bad day, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak went public with a story that was carried internationally about his Prius that also sometimes does a runaway when he uses his cruise control. He said that he tried to get both US safety regulators and Toyota's executives to listen to his complaints, but they ignored him. So Mr. Wozniak decided to go public and state his belief that a software problem is behind it.
Mr. Wozniak better hope his brakes work.
Today, the Japanese government ordered Toyota to investigate possible brake defects in its Prius cars.
Mr. Wozniak owns four Priuses.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.