In one of the more anticlimactic communiques from corporate America this week, Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA announced that it has formed "SMART" teams to
spin claims of sudden acceleration in its vehicles and blame the victims help local law enforcement uncover the causes of sudden acceleration in its vehicles.
We were getting pretty blue in the face pointing out that the company has been blaming the victim in at least one recent report of an out-of-control Prius. Last month we argued repeatedly that Toyota was essentially allowed to investigate itself, impugn its customers and come to conclusions that were swallowed wholesale by the media. But the Los Angeles Times late Thursday reported that indeed Toyota has moved against some of its customers, with some startling new revelations about how hard-lined the corporate giant has become toward claimers and critics.
James Sikes is the San Diego County resident who said his Prius had a bout of sudden acceleration on a Southern California highway. A California Highway Patrol officer dispatched to help said smoke was coming from the vehicle's brakes. Toyota conducted its own investigation, with local, auto-industry backed Congressman Darryl Issa leaking the carmaker's obvious conclusion: The car couldn't possibly have acted this way without input from the driver, pointing to Sikes as a possible fraud. Someone even apparently leaked information about Sikes personal life to Fox News, which reported he had filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
The Times reports that the CHP investigation casts no shadow on the veracity of his character, nor does it doubt his version of events. In fact, the CHP states that a medical examination after the incident revealed that Sikes had very high blood pressure and a racing heart.
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Toyota chief Akio Toyoda told Congress in February that "I will make sure that we will never ever blame the customers going forward." But with SMART and an aggressive public-relations arm, it appears the company has been doing just that. The Times also cites the case of a reportedly out-of-control Prius in Harrison, New York: Again, a Toyota team of investigators cast doubt on the driver's claims, saying the brake pedal had not been depressed when the vehicle hit a wall.
(Some of the data contained in Toyota vehicles was encoded with proprietary software so that only only Toyota engineers could interpret it. Are we to trust these conclusions? The federal government has enlisted the help of no less than NASA to assist in its investigation of possible sudden-acceleration).
The company has also allegedly attempted to smear an academic and an independent car expert who were critical of the company: False claims stating that they had been working for attorneys who represented plaintiffs in sudden-acceleration cases were spread.
Why is Toyota turning against some of its customers -- like James Sikes -- now? There's one major distinction between Sikes, for example, and CHP officer Mark Saylor, who crashed an allegedly out-of-control Lexus with three family members inside. In the latter case, there were no victims left alive to blame.