06/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toyota Still Covering Up

This past week we brought our 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid to our local Toyota dealer for an unexpected recall. Just a few weeks earlier we were assured that the car was not on the recall list. Now, we were told, our floor mats needed replacing and the accelerator pedal needed modifying. Toyota couldn't explain the sudden change which, by itself, doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that it knows what it's doing.

Even though it was impossible for the mats to interfere, Toyota insisted on replacing them, saying it would make our car safer. It seems like the company has taken a page from TSA, trying to make us feel better without addressing the real issues.

In an earlier post I noted that it seemed to me that Toyota was covering up and not
acting in the best interests of their customers by coming forward with what it knew. But, as I noted, that was a gut instinct, knowing what engineers know, and observing Toyota's strange behavior.

But now there's irrefutable evidence that Toyota has been covering up. Contradicting earlier testimony about when it learned of the acceleration problem, documents turned over to NHTSA revealed that a group VP Irving Miller wrote to another staff member in January about accelerator pedal defects, saying "The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean."

And today Toyota agreed to pay a $16.4 million fine for not notifying NHTSA of pedal problems within the five days of learning of them, even though they were already making repairs for the same problem on cars in Europe.

Earlier this month NHTSA announced they will have a group of NASA scientists and engineers conduct its own investigation to determine if the problems of sudden acceleration could be related to the electronics or software, as some experts believe, and as Toyota denies is the cause. That's a positive step, because NHTSA doesn't yet have the in-house expertise, and chose not to rely solely on Toyota's statements.

It's unfortunate that they have to do this, because within Toyota there's surely a group of engineers that already have those answers. With this problem festering for years, there had to be internal studies, extensive testing and detailed reports; Japanese technology companies and engineers are smart, very thorough and detail-oriented.

So another year will go by, more accidents will occur, and more deaths will likely result, all because Toyota is unwilling to disclose everything it knows.

This doesn't surprise those who have dealt with Toyota. An investigation conducted by the Associated Press and appearing in the Los Angeles Times and Japan Times this past week, notes that "Toyota has routinely engaged in questionable, evasive and deceptive legal tactics when sued, frequently claiming it does not have information it is required to turn over and sometimes even ignoring court orders to produce key documents."

But what do mechanics think, those that work on these cars every day? I asked three experienced auto mechanics, including the owner, with a large independent foreign and domestic auto repair facility in Encinitas, CA. The facility has 14 bays and 11 technicians, specializing in the repairs of Japanese, German and American automobiles, and equipped with much of the same equipment that dealers use for their service and diagnosis.

They've come across one car with unintended acceleration, a 2008 Toyota Rav4, but were unable to get it to reoccur. But all three believe the problems being reported by consumers to be very real. From their experiences, customers are reluctant to bring in their cars to correct a problem unless it's real. They believe that among the many that have complained about this issue, most have likely experienced it. But they noted that often these problems are elusive to find.

In spite of this, the shop's owner thinks Toyota makes some of the most reliable cars. He owns several as part of his auto rental business, and plans to replace them with Toyotas. He thinks Toyota should modify the software so that applying the brakes will automatically disable the accelerator. That would provide a fail-safe feature that would allow drivers to easily recover if unintended acceleration did occur. This is a feature found on many German cars, including Mercedes, BMW and Audi, but few of the other makes.

All three believe there's a real possibility that there can be a software or electronic glitch that Toyota has either failed to acknowledge or hasn't discovered. Because it occurs so infrequently, they don't think it's likely to be reproduced in the few hours of analyses Toyota has been conducting following some of the recent incidents. The only way it can be reproduced is to take cars that have failed and subject them to hundreds of thousands of miles of testing, including doing it under extreme conditions.

For now we'll just have to wait and watch as the lawsuits and investigations go forward. My bet is the real story behind unintended acceleration has yet to be fully revealed. But in spite of Toyota's years of efforts to suppress it, the truth will come out.