He may know more about automobiles than almost anyone in America. Consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, has been exposing the hazards of the automobile industry for more than four decades.
In 1965, the then-unknown lawyer, Nader wrote, Unsafe At Any Speed, an expose of the problems with the Chevy Corvair and the automobile industry’s disregard for consumer safety by producing defective and unsafe vehicles. Nader is a founder of the advocacy group, Public Citizen. He has run for president of the U.S. as both an Independent and a Green Party candidate.
He spoke to IB News editor, Jane Akre, about the failure of federal regulators and what’s ahead for Toyota and Toyota owners.
Akre: Toyota seems to have not just stepped in it but they are rolling in it from a public relations standpoint.
Nader: “The floor mat seems to have been a ruse. That was their first attempt to cover it up. There are two different suppliers in the U.S. and Japan, and they are not getting a recall in Japan. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has the best subpoena power and they have not exercised it against Toyota suppliers or dealers. Now they are jawboning in telling them stop production. They haven’t exercised their formal authority to do it.”
Q: So the problem is with NHTSA?
Nader: “NHTSA doesn’t have the wherewithal they need to hire skilled people and their budget in inflationary terms is equal to 55% of the budget they had in 1980.
“So you’ve got congressional hearings next week. We’ll see what kind of witnesses they bring. They have a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland. He should be retained. The hearings have got to have technical experts to ask and answer questions that have not been answered by Toyota or NHTSA."
Q: What questions does NHTSA have to ask Toyota?
Nader: “They need to say, 'I need your engineering reports on exhaustive tests on the computer systems. What do they mean by replacing the pedal? How is that going to deal with a problem like that?'
“Another one is to divulge all your lawsuits and evidence of injury from probable cause police reports. Now when there is a crash it won’t just say, 'the driver was drunk and lost control,' now police will start focusing on sudden acceleration.
“Why doesn’t Toyota cover the millions of automobiles made before 2005 which were subject to six NHTSA unintentional acceleration and product defect petitions since 2003? They are not part of the recall. There was a recall of the Toyota Lexus 200 in Britain in 2000, why did it take so long to recall it in the U.S?
“There is NHTSA protocol and they are not setting the standard. It’s all done in phone calls here. They are way in over their heads. There are a lot of questions they’re not asking, really the kind of questions a thorough regulatory agency investigates.
"They have been so denuded of technical staff through budget deregulation mania. They have been turned from a federal regulatory agency to a consulting company office for Detroit. And this has been going on since Reagan, under a Republican and Democrat. Clinton was as bad as Bush.”
Q: Do electronics and computers in today’s cars make finding the problem more difficult?
Nader: “The first Toyota recall was over sticking throttles in 1986. They replaced the computer system. Then it was much simpler than now, and we just don’t know, they haven’t done the engineering and testing. Whether Toyota has or not, we don’t know since they don’t have mandatory recalls in Japan. If they had the same problem in Japan, it would really explode there.
“This is very complex, the most ever. There are so many components to the computer system that have to be tested. The last sticking throttle was in General Motors. 6.1 million GMs were recalled, mostly Chevys, and it was an engine mount problem. That was 1971.
“NHTSA should issue mandatory standard smart pedals in all systems. Smart pedal, the brake override system, but that doesn’t deal with the fundamental computer problem. It’s more like an effective band aid."
What would you do if you had a Toyota?
Nader - “Not having a car I don’t have to worry. What would I do? Wait until you get a certified letter until you do anything? There is something incongruous about what they are doing. Toyota is saying the problem is not electronic, that’s where the real conflict is whether it’s electronic or not. It could be different problems, mechanical maybe, but it all depends on the computer system.
“The ‘fix’ – there is no confidence this is the right fix. Some don’t think it will work. There is just not enough known and that means they are not really coming clean with that level of technical disclosure. Better to learn how to brake and put it in neutral at the same time.”
Q: Is litigation the answer?
Nader: “Litigation is too slow. It’s very important but it takes too long. This is a company with huge resources. The thing is the cost in sales that they can’t recover. GM bounced back pretty easily.
"This seems to have a different quality and gravity to it. GM knew what the problem was and it was the same for 6 million vehicles. Increasingly, electronics are the forecast of the future that mechanics can’t deal with it. It increases the variables of what can go wrong. The engine mount was a simple physical artifact."
Q: Should President Obama get involved?
Nader: “Why not? He’s spending $780 million this year to guard the embassy in Baghdad because of a criminal war of aggression by Bush/Cheney that is larger than the budget for all of NHTSA including grants to states for traffic safety, which is $702 million. A $775 million budget to guard an embassy, it’s institutional insanity.
"It took him a year to find the head of NHTSA. George W. Obama. More information has to be disclosed and that is a function of the press, to press Congress and provoke Toyota. If they downplay it, it looks like a four day story and the heat’s off." #