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Toyota SUA Whistleblower - Personal Statement

The following is a personal statement from Betsy Benjaminson, the professional translator in charge of translating Japanese documents from Toyota. Benjaminson reviewed the documents that she was translating and realized that Toyota was covering up the problem of sudden unintended acceleration in many of their cars. She then blew the whistle on Toyota and went to the US congress with her knowledge, ultimately resulting in Toyota being forced to recall millions of vehicles, pay 1.3 billion dollars in a class action lawsuit settlement, and pay 1.2 billion dollars to the department of Justice. You can read about the Toyota recalls here.

This statement is directly from Benjaminson's facebook page in March 2013, which is no longer online.

Personal statement of Toyota Whistleblower Betsy Benjaminson:

I am a professional translator. I have been translating from Japanese to English professionally since I lived and studied in Japan in the 1970s.

My decades of experience in this profession have earned me many important freelance translating assignments. In 2010 I started a freelance job editing about 1,500 internal documents from Toyota about unintended acceleration (UA).

Finding the cover-up

Living on a remote farm in Israel, I had not heard of Toyota's unintended acceleration (UA) problem, although it was common knowledge in the U.S. I therefore had no preconceptions that might have influenced my judgment while reading these documents. The documents spoke for themselves. I soon noticed that something was very wrong. I gradually came to understand that the documents contained many contradictory versions of reality.

First and most shocking were the reports horrified drivers wrote about their runaway cars. Second were startling emails Toyota’s engineers had sent each other. They were searching for UA’s root causes, but they could not seem to find them.

They sometimes admitted it was the electronic parts, the engine computer, the software, or interference by radio waves. Meanwhile, efforts were made to find floor mats that would trap gas pedals and conveniently explain UA. The R&D chief admitted that incompletely developed cars had gone into production and that quality control of parts was poor or non-existent.

Third, I read many descriptions by executives and managers of how they had hoodwinked regulators, courts, and even Congress, by withholding, omitting, or misstating facts.

Last, and most damning, I found Toyota’s press releases to be bland reassurances obviously meant to help maintain public belief in the safety of Toyota’s cars—despite providing no evidence to support those reassurances. I saw a huge gap between the hard facts known by engineers and executives and the make-believe produced for public consumption by Toyota’s PR department.

The Crown Prince and the people

A moment of truth came when I was shocked at the contrast between the intense determination of Toyota’s electronics engineers to find and fix the cause of a speed control problem in the car of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito – and how the company stonewalled government investigators and ordinary American families whose loved ones had been injured or killed when their cars hit a tree, launched off a cliff, or landed in a river.

Compelling evidence

I am neither an electronics nor automotive engineering expert. I therefore had to educate myself until I was confident that my conclusions were correct. The more I learned, the better I understood how complex the evidence was and how challenging for me to master it, but when combined with other sources of information, the evidence was absolutely compelling. I became convinced that ordinary people were certainly at risk, cars on the road were dangerous, and that inside the company, they seemed to know it, but not to care.

Telling the truth

he [sic] truth must get out, I thought. Indifference was impossible. I could not hold it in and allow more people to die or be injured. I first consulted my Jerusalem rabbi, who is also a respected economist and business ethics expert.

His wise advice: I could speak out to prevent future damage. Afterwards, I approached Tel Aviv’s Heskia – Hacmun Law Firm. The partners, Amos Hacmun and Dor Heskia, provided valuable advice and genuine, steadfast support during this extremely difficult journey.

I began seeking outlets for the truth for the sake of furthering public safety and saving lives. Eventually, media coverage alerted some in Congress to the unsolved, ongoing problem. One TV news report revealed a document that Toyota did not give to Congress but that absolutely should have been turned over.

The Senate Judiciary Committee investigates

When this fact became public, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa wanted to know whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had allowed Toyota off the hook by accepting the results of a too-narrow NASA study of car electronics. Through the Senator’s whistleblower program, I gave hundreds of documents to his Judiciary Committee staffers. I sorted the documents to show that many electronics issues related to UA were known inside Toyota but not even touched upon by NHTSA and NASA in their studies of Toyota electronics and UA.

I also organized the documents to show that it seemed the executives were misrepresenting facts in their sworn testimony before three Congressional committees. Senator Grassley was thus concerned about whether NHTSA had done a proper job, especially with the NASA study it had commissioned, and sent a public letter of inquiry to NHTSA administrator David Strickland. NHTSA’s response to Senator Grassley was cleverly worded and noncommittal.

Then the staffers invited me to explain the documents and permitted me to bring experts to do so. I invited four experts. We all flew in as volunteers from our far flung homes and participated in eight hours of meetings. Following these meetings, the investigation was suspended awaiting more evidence or developments.

Mother Nature doesn’t lie: Working with scientists and engineers More scientific and engineering evidence was needed. I contacted UA vehicle owners who had complained and helped them give failed vehicles and parts to independent forensic engineers. There were two stunning successes.

In one, a runaway Camry gas pedal was found to have a short circuit just like the one found by the NASA study team, corroborating evidence previously dismissed by NASA. In another, an engineer inspected a UA Prius and found a serious manufacturing defect in the Prius steering column assembly. He later made a defect petition to NHTSA that got nationwide news coverage. Hopefully, a full technical investigation of this potentially dangerous defect will soon be launched.

Scientists and engineers are frustrated when technical information is kept secret. I occasionally acted as a kind of switchboard operator among them to facilitate exchanges and reviews of their UA related findings. Work is ongoing in various labs, and more findings will be forthcoming.

Going public, come hell or high water

Toyota settled a UA class action lawsuit for $1.3 billion in December, 2012. The settlement kept all discovered technical facts secret by court order. The public’s curiosity was aroused…what were the secrets? The publishers of Corporate Counsel magazine decided to find out. They conducted an in-depth investigation and had experts analyze the documents. After more than two years in anonymity, in this report I stepped boldly into public view as a means of catalyzing more action. The article was published in March of 2013. I hope this and everything else I’ve done will alert the public and will save lives.

Solving the problem

We must fix the ultimate root cause of UA and other dangerous vehicle behavior, not only in Toyota but in the entire auto industry. Today’s cars are controlled by complex electronics that must work perfectly to keep people safe. UA and other tragedies can happen because there have been no public standards for safety-critical parts and systems. That needs to change, and concerned citizens can lead the industry and government to effect that change, just as they did with seat belts and air bags.

A new ISO safety standard for road vehicles was published recently. It requires rigorous engineering of safety-critical car systems such as throttle, brakes, or steering. Third-party safety certification is part of it. Compliance is still difficult for automakers like Toyota.

I want this standard fully implemented to keep people safer. To help push the U.S. government and auto industry to fully adopt the standard, I have founded a new advocacy group, Citizens for Auto Electronics Safety. Its mission will be to gather stories, facts, and scientific evidence about vehicle electronics malfunctions, then to encourage government and industry to use the standard to boost safety. Please visit this Facebook page for more information.

Sudden Unintended Acceleration is still a problem

Although Toyota has been forced to pay billions in fines and settlements due to misleading their customers, there are still cars on the road that have sudden acceleration problems. Bisnar Chase has more resources about sudden unintended acceleration for you to read and information on other dangerous auto defects here.

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