Toyota response to complaints takes on a confrontational tone

When its customers claim their Toyota or Lexus vehicles suddenly accelerate, the company is at the ready with teams of technicians that it can deploy rapidly to examine the reports -- and in some cases discredit them.

The teams, dubbed SMART for “swift market analysis and research team,” were publicly unveiled by Toyota on Thursday, but have been deployed at least seven times in the last month.

They scored big successes when they helped undermine a recent claim by a San Diego motorist who said his Prius took him on a 20-minute high-speed ride down the freeway and another by a New York housekeeper who said her Prius flew into a wall even though her foot was on the brake.

Toyota’s critics say it has every right to dispute inaccurate claims, and its legions of devoted customers have cheered the rigorous response on Internet forums.

The SMART teams are part of a much broader public relations and legal strategy Toyota is using to confront critics, an approach that has toughened in recent weeks. Toyota is now staking out its position before major scientific investigations into sudden acceleration have gotten started, and before federal officials have completed regulatory reviews. Last week, federal safety regulators enlisted the government’s top technical experts to examine the problem.

Critics say the company is acting prematurely and in some cases spreading misinformation.

“It is a very aggressive and misleading campaign,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “Toyota can’t win this battle by slinging mud, but they are trying.”

In at least one case, a SMART inspection backfired, adding ammunition to a lawsuit against the company. The team discovered that a repair under the recall campaign for sticking accelerator pedals had not been properly completed.

Toyota’s strategy represents a big change in the last six weeks. In February, Toyota Chief Executive Akio Toyoda told Congress, “As the CEO of the company, I will make sure that we will never ever blame the customers going forward.”

Exactly what that meant is not quite clear, because the company said it now intends to dispute the reports of its customers when it sees something questionable.

“When we see something that needs addressing, we’re going to respond,” company spokesman Mike Michels said. In some cases, customers have claimed sudden acceleration for mechanical behavior that involves “normal functions of a vehicle,” Michels said.

He added, “We’re getting a lot of stuff coming out of the woodwork.”

Auto safety experts said Toyota has every right to defend itself against phony claims, but its approach has led to countercharges that the company is spreading outright falsehoods.

Ditlow is furious over an e-mail Toyota sent to some reporters, a copy of which he provided to The Times, alleging that he was on the payroll of plaintiff attorneys. Ditlow said that neither he nor his organization takes money from lawyers. Ditlow said his funding comes from nonprofit foundations, auto insurers, consumers and its publications.

Congressional investigators, meanwhile, complain that Toyota has sent multiple teams of lobbyists after them to sow discord among committee staffers. Toyota lobbyists are trying to disrupt the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s investigation, a staffer on the committee said.

Toyota has also taken on several congressional witnesses.

David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in February that his experiments showed potential flaws in Toyota’s electronic engine control system.

Two Toyota employees resigned from a board of advisors for Gilbert’s academic department.

Toyota then hired testing firm Exponent Inc., which helped the automaker put together a demonstration for the media at Toyota’s U.S. sales headquarters in Torrance countering Gilbert’s results point by point.

“It is unfortunate they felt the need to do that,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t expect Toyota would like what I found, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the response. What were they trying to prove, that they could squash me like a bug? Well, I suppose they could.”

The attack on Gilbert has worried other academic experts that they could be the next target if they are critical of the company.

“Most of the academics completely support Gilbert,” said Michael Pecht, director of an electronics reliability lab at the University of Maryland who has studied sudden acceleration for 10 years. “I think that there is a fear in the Toyota Exponent tactics.”

Sean Kane, president of the consulting firm Safety Research and Strategies, has been another Toyota critic who the company has characterized as an operative of law firms.

Kane claims Toyota backed an online consumer poll that attempted to discredit him. The poll, a copy of which was provided by Kane, asks a series of questions about Kane, Gilbert and allegedly inaccurate reporting by ABC News.

Embedded in one question, for example, was the statement, “The American people deserve the truth about the safety of their cars, not biased studies by trial lawyer consultants who stand to make millions suing Toyota.”

“We do opinion surveys all the time,” Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said. “We were researching the potential for getting messages out, in particular for our advertising.”

Meanwhile, the SMART inspections have yielded mixed results.

On March 15, the company drew dozens of reporters to an event at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego where it was able to cast doubt on claims by James Sikes that his 2008 Prius had suddenly accelerated a week earlier.

The company asserted that the accelerator pedal was working properly and the brake pedal had been repeatedly depressed, implying Sikes did it intentionally to mimic a sudden acceleration event.

Released several days later, the California Highway Patrol report about the incident said nothing about suspected fraud and noted simply that the brakes were burned out. It said Sikes was examined afterward by emergency medical personnel and found to have a “very high” blood pressure and heart rate.

SMART did another inspection last month in Harrison, N.Y., after a woman reported that the Prius she was driving suddenly accelerated into a wall. An inspection of the vehicle electronics by Toyota found that the driver never had her foot on the brake in the moments before impact.

But the SMART team may have helped Toyota’s adversaries on March 12, when it inspected a 2007 Camry after an alleged sudden acceleration event.

Linda Tang, an Orange County resident who is suing Toyota over alleged defects in the Camry electronics, said her vehicle suddenly accelerated after she had taken it to a dealership for repairs under recall.

Toyota initially did not inspect the vehicle. It was only after Tang’s attorney enlisted congressional investigators to contact the Department of Transportation that the inspection was scheduled.

At a sophisticated Toyota facility in Orange County, a large team of company technicians spent nearly seven hours going over the vehicle. Two federal safety investigators flew in from Washington to oversee the inspection. They were joined by an automotive electronics expert hired by Tang’s attorney.

Near the near the end of the day, the Toyota technicians acknowledged a major error.

A shim that was supposed to have been installed in the gas pedal assembly under the recall to prevent sticking was missing, according to federal officials and allegations in Tang’s suit.

“It was shocking,” said William Rosenbluth, the automotive electronics expert who works for Tang’s attorney, Michael Lewis Kelly. “It wasn’t there and the paperwork says it was put in.”

Toyota officials declined to discuss the inspection.