The GM Volt, Conflicted Interests, and… Toyota

I see the problem now.

The whole problem with the investigation of the battery fire of a GM volt, left exposed to the elements for three weeks after a crash test at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), isn’t about whether there really is a special, hidden danger from the Volt or not. It’s that the agency head sounds like Toyota’s former president during the sudden acceleration scare.

At the time, Mr. Toyoda was much derided for his presentation, and even in certain cases, for flawed Japanese grammar (seriously, native Japanese speakers talked to me about it that day), but nonetheless bored the media to death enough that time allowed the proper investigations to show that sudden acceleration was largely hype and myth. In the meantime, it afforded Americans an opportunity to do good, old-fashioned Japan bashing like during the glory days of the sport. Along the way, we had ample opportunity to see that Toyota had allowed long-term issues to creep up and create a certain level of corporate rot which wasn’t good. Toyota just didn’t seem like it had a sense of urgency to inform the government and the public, deciding it knew best and others didn’t need to know explicitly.

Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, gave the head of the NHTSA, David Strictland, a royal grilling about the latter’s not having announced a possible danger with the GM Volt far sooner, portraying it as a conflict of interest. Mind you, this is despite experts never having seen cause for panic; leaving a punctured battery exposed for three weeks, after which a fire broke out, violated manufacturer recommendations quite vividly and so was abuse above and beyond the call of scientific testing. But I realized that’s not the point.

Strickland said he would have gone public immediately if there were an imminent safety risk. He said it would have been irresponsible to tell people that something was wrong with the Volt while experts looked into the cause of the fire.

See the problem here? He would have told the public if he had decided (without the investigation being finished) that there was an immediate safety risk. In other words, he would have told the public if a circumstance that would simply not have happened, did happen. He said it would have been irresponsible to tell anyone that there was a possible problem unless he had conclusively proved that there was an actual problem.

In other words, he made himself the judge and jury of what people should know about possible problems under investigation, but not proven.

In other words, he sounds just like Mr. Toyoda did, inspiring the same kind of outrage, here from Rep. Issa:

“How dare you not have both the public and this committee know what you knew in a timely fashion,” he said.

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it – and it’s when you say it.

Being right is not a defense here. Being proven right six or eight or ten months later is not a defense. People believe that responsibility isn’t confined to conducting secret investigations and either never releasing details or releasing them at the last minute.

Conflicts of interest are not defined by proof that there has been wrongdoing; they are defined by creating so much opportunity to do wrongdoing, and to get away with it, that the public can’t help but wonder. 

Toyota messed up by creating, and sustaining, the impression that it had mislead the government and the public, and engaged in corrupt relations with auto regulators, that it had gotten away with murder… or at least manslaughter. Hindsight proved these claims unjustified by science, though many still believe them. Similarly, the NHTSA, which investigated Toyota, messed up by creating the impression that as part of the government, which has skin in the game in regards to GM, and specifically the GM Volt (one of President Obama’s pet priorities), the NHTSA has motive, means, and opportunity to manipulate its reporting of investigations to benefit the White House.

That doesn’t mean the NHTSA did just that. As I wrote above, experts seem to agree firmly that the NHTSA strangely didn’t dispose of the side-crash test vehicle like it should have and created conditions for a fire that wouldn’t have happened in real life, because no one would’ve just left a totaled Volt on the side of the road for three weeks, and if someone did, the driver would be long gone when it did catch fire! But again, that’s not the point: the opportunity for hanky-panky existed, and the NHTSA said, nope, nothing to see here, move along.

I’m well aware that Issa is a combative chairman and an aggressive investigator, but he’s right to point out that there could have been manipulation due to conflict of interest; that’s why we call it conflict of interest. When the head of a government agency goes in front of the cameras and ends up sounding like a captain of industry defending his own car – like Mr. Toyoda then, or GM Chairman and CEO Daniel F. Ackerson at the same hearing with Mr. Strictland – you look completely out of place.

Having said all this, it’s really much, much simpler. If that had been Chairman Toyoda testifying and not David Strictland, the media would have howled with rage. We can disagree on if it’s a conflict of interest, but it is most certainly a double standard. A regulator placing itself in this position needs to make a quick trip to the nearest mirror and take a hard stare. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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