EDITOR'S NOTE: This week, the Department of Justice (DOJ), through U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan), imposed a $1.2 billion penalty against the Toyota Motors Corporation for negligence and deception in a series of "unintended acceleration" accidents that resulted in as many as 93 fatalities in Toyota vehicles manufactured between 2003 and 2009.
Inexplicably, the DOJ cited failures with floor mats and "sticky" accelerator pedals as the cause of more than 2,000 cases of unintended acceleration reported to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) since 1999. Several former NHTSA administrators, a large number of automotive safety experts and electronic engineers have long expressed doubts about the mats-and-pedals thesis and have said the focus should be on Toyota's electronic throttle control system.
Among these skeptics, the one engineer allowed into Toyota's ultra-secure "code room," to test the software in the electronic throttle control system, Michael Barr, head of the Barr Group, has stated flatly that the failures originated in Toyota's electronics.
Barr was the star witness in the only Toyota unintended acceleration case to be litigated in an open court, in Bookout v. Toyota, in Oklahoma City. Based on Barr's testimony, the jury decided against Toyota, assessing a $3 judgment, after which Toyota reached an undisclosed settlement with the plaintiffs on the amount of punitive damages.
When the DOJ announced is penalties against Toyota, David Benjamin, who writes now and then for EE Times, got in touch with Jerika Richardson at the Dept. of Justice, asking why — while penalizing Toyota for a series of "unintended acceleration" tragedies — accepted Toyota's widely discredited mats-and-pedals explanation.
Ms. Richardson asked Benjamin to submit questions, after which she wrote back saying that DOJ would not comment.
Here is Benjamin’s e-mail to DOJ.
Thanks for offering to help me with a few questions about the DOJ's sanctions against Toyota Motors in the series of "unintended acceleration" accidents
I got in touch because I was surprised that the DOJ's decision was apparently based on findings that the accidents were the result of either a) incorrectly installed floor mats, or b) "sticky" gas pedals.
In statements made by the DOJ, there was no mention of the evidence — presented in meticulous detail — by software expert Michael Barr, in Jean Bookout, Charles Schwarz et al, v. Toyota Motor Corporation, in the District Court of Oklahoma County. As you know, that trial — which ended in late October 2013 — was the only unintended acceleration case decided by a jury. Toyota lost that case based almost exclusively on the testimony of Mr. Barr, who proved — to the jury's satisfaction — that the truly fatal flaw that caused unintended acceleration in the affected Toyotas lay in the software that had been designed into the vehicles' computer systems.
As part of the discovery process in Bookout v. Toyota, Mr. Barr was given access to Toyota's source code, and was allowed to test Toyota's software for — literally — months. This depth of access was not part of the research by either the NHTSA, NAS or NASA. As you know, the NHTSA's February 2011 report exonerated Toyota's electronic control systems and accepted Toyota's claims that only mats and pedals were involved in the unintended acceleration incidents. Mr. Barr's work contradicts these findings. Mr. Barr's work corroborates early research done by Toyota that detected a possible electronic cause for unintended acceleration (as reported by CNN in March 2012).
The implications of DOJ accepting Toyota's assurance that its unintended acceleration problem is mechanical (mats and pedals) rather than electronic are significant.