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Obama attacks Toyota

Toyota owners stormed dealerships all over the country last week demanding “fixes” for “defects” described in wildly inflammatory press reports.

Toyota apologized for “defects” that to date are still being investigated. Before whatever problems might exist had been determined and before any “fix” has been found, the government ordered Toyota to begin the largest recall of vehicles in automotive history. Toyota then shut down its U.S. plants and stopped selling eight of its popular models, including Camry and Corolla.

Toyota claims these actions were “voluntary,” but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was quoted as saying the Obama administration had ordered the recall.

The sales suspension affects about 56 percent of all Toyota and Lexus vehicles sold last year. The nation’s Toyota dealers estimate they stand to lose $2.5 billion each month that sales of these popular models are suspended.

The current cascade of troubles for Toyota started on Aug. 28, 2009, when a San Diego family died in their Lexus in an horrific crash caused by what is known as SUA – sudden unintended acceleration. The actual cause of SUA is not known. Rumors about a “stuck” gas pedal or faulty software or the floor mat interfering with the gas pedal are still rumors. An investigation is still underway.

Disclosure: My family drives Toyota cars (a Prius and a Lexus SUV), and we have never had a problem with these excellent products. On our cars (and every other Toyota vehicle I’ve seen), the floor mats are firmly secured by hooks and cannot interfere with the gas pedal. And the gas pedal works just as it should – press down and the car moves faster. Ease up and the car slowly decelerates.

Nonetheless, Toyota faces a perfect storm from SUA. But is government “greed” a factor here? As a co-owner of Toyota rivals GM and Chrysler, is the Obama administration and its jihad against Toyota “consumer protection” or revenge against a successful, non-union, red state based rival? Given what Rahm Emanuel said about crisis as an opportunity to “advance the agenda,” this question deserves closer attention.

Consider the facts that are currently available.

A year ago, Toyota was riding high. With non-union manufacturing plants in Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Indiana, Toyota made the most popular and most highly regarded vehicles in the U.S. Rivals GM and Chrysler were imploding, and the president stepped in with massive taxpayer cash infusions and took over these companies as joint ventures between the federal government and the UAW.

Why is Toyota singled out for SUA? A Consumer Reports study indicated that, for the model year 2008, there were 52 complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration against Toyota for SUA, representing 41 percent of all such complaints even though Toyota had just 18 percent of the U.S. market.

However, the same Consumer Reports study relates that GM and Chrysler also were the subject of SUA complaints to the NHTSA, but none of their plants were shut and the affected models were not recalled nor banned from sale. One of the vehicles named in these complaints is GM’s Pontiac Vibe but the NHTSA has not ordered its recall nor banned its sale.

The American Company (CTS of Elkhart, Ind.) that supplies some Toyota models with the gas pedal in question also supplies the same gas pedal to Honda, Ford, GM and Chrysler.

Worth noting, too, is the fact that SUA complaints increased after 2002 when Toyota replaced mechanical throttle linkages with electronic ones. It’s just easier to find and fix mechanical defects than software glitches. Even the NHTSA could not find the electronic defect that some “experts” allege must be causing the SUA in these complaints.

All of this is a field day for the Plaintiff’s Bar, another Obama ally. Attorneys made fortunes in the “unsafe at any speed” Corvair, exploding Pinto and rollover Ford Explorer cases. These could pale in significance compared to SUA and the scale of Toyota’s recall. The publicity over 52 complaints out of 1.8 million Toyota/Lexus vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2008 has made every owner concerned about the safety of their Toyota vehicle.

This panic could fuel lawsuits big enough to put Toyota out of business in the U.S. What a boon for Government Motors! Indeed, last Friday, GM, Chrysler and Ford all announced ad campaigns aimed at worried Toyota owners.

Toyota will announce a “fix” for the gas pedal this week. What’s at stake here is not just the safety of the individual Toyota vehicle, nor even the financial health of that company – but the very existence of a free competitive vehicle market in the U.S.