Halloween Monday: Dying for Love

In this roundup: Turkish troubles, good tech bad tech, fickle market reaction, and Halloween tricks-or-treats.

Because it’s Halloween I’m sharing a short film for Movie Monday based on that theme. It’s probably R-rated so don’t launch it in the office without the doors shut and/or the volume down. It parodizes so many cheap horror films of the 1980s-2000s including the Final Girl trope.

I need to watch this short a couple more times. The film is billed as a single take — one long, unbroken camera shot — but I’m not certain it is. I think there may be a hidden few cuts when the location changes from one end of a room to another. Look at this analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of dissolve cuts in his 1948 film Rope and you’ll see what I mean by hidden cuts. Keep in mind that with digital technology, even dissolve cuts may be smoother and much less detectable than they were in 1948 with traditional film.

Turkish troubles

Good tech, bad tech, or something in between

  • Delta Airlines implements RFID baggage tracking app (Fortune) — FINALLY. I’ve been wondering ever since the furor over Walmart using RFID on inventory why airlines couldn’t use RFID and let their customers track their own bags. Only took ~16 years or so. And thank goodness this technology isn’t WiFi-enabled. Should save billions of dollars — let’s hope that trickles down to savings on tickets.
  • Toyota developing a keyless access system for carsharing (Detroit Free Press) — Really? Didn’t Toyota have keyless remote fobs that were hacked just last year?
  • SpaceX still investigating launchpad explosion (Business Insider) — To be fair, it’s not clear yet what triggered the explosion two months ago. Can’t say if this is good or bad technology or something else altogether. (Not going to mourn the loss of a satellite which was to provide internet to African continent via Facebook. This part I’d call bad tech. Can’t we come up with some other approach to providing internet besides a walled garden with fake news?)

The market = fickle mistress?[1]

Tricks or treats?

  • Spooky reads: scary seance scenes in fiction (Guardian) — Could be fun to read while waiting for trick-or-treaters to knock on your door.
  • What makes a good horror film? (OpenCulture) — If you’d rather watch than read something scary tonight, bone up first before surfing Netflix or Amazon for a film.
  • Werewolves in classic literature (Sententiae Antiquae) — Classic literature, as in Greek or Roman, has a surprising number of references to lycanthropy. Did they tell each other these stories to scare each other around the campfire?
  • Sluttiest Halloween costumes (McSweeney’s) — Of 1915, that is. In case you need a laugh and not a scare. I sure could right now; only one more week of election terror to go.

Watch out for little ghosts and goblins tonight!
[1] Note: You’re not seeing things — I accidentally hit the Publish button before I’d updated the two market economics bits!

Monday Morning: Put Your Pom-poms Down

A certain state governor (or his PR team) tweeted a bunch of smack last night during the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate. Like this:


It is to laugh. Every decision made by this administration about Flint has been about money, not about the right thing, and not even about the legal thing.

He put his pom-poms down last week long enough to lawyer up, though. Mm-hmm.

By the way, that’s the NSFW version – here’s the language-sanitized clean version of that video for your office space. Crank the volume and bring it.

All around Apple town

  • Email provider Lavabit filed an amicus brief in #AppleVsFBI, arguing the FBI’s demands could have adverse affects on businesses:

    Such precedence would likely result in many businesses moving their operations offshore, therefore, making it more difficult for law enforcement to obtain even ordinary assistance from such companies…

    Wow, sounds familiar, huh? Brief’s worth a read (pdf).

  • Apple VP of software engineering Craig Federighi wrote an op-ed for yesterday’s WaPo, restating an opinion Apple and many of its supporters already expressed:

    “…it’s so disappointing that the FBI, Justice Department and others in law enforcement are pressing us to turn back the clock to a less-secure time and less-secure technologies. …”

  • The stakes get higher in #AppleVsFBI as Apple prepares to launch several new iPhones and an iPad on March 21. We all know a decision by Judge Pym will affect these devices in the future, not just the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone 5C.
  • And just to keep Apple users even more on their toes, there’s now Apple ransomware on the loose. So far only Mac devices have been targeted, but it’s only a matter of time before other Apple devices are similarly affected. I’d put my money on higher profile users or those using iPhones to remotely control costly systems.


And on this day in 1876, U.S. Patent 174,465 for Improvement in Telegraphy was granted to Alexander Graham Bell.

What will they write about this day in another 140 years? Do something worth writing about.

GM’s Turn for a Big Recall

Because so many people like to accuse me of beating up on Toyota:

General Motors has recalled 1.3 million Chevrolet and Pontiac models in North America for power steering failures that are tied to 14 crashes and one injury in the United States, the company said Tuesday.

The recall affects 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007-2010 Pontiac G5 models sold in the United States, 2005-2006 Pontiac Pursuit vehicles sold in Canada, and 2005-2006 Pontiac G4 models sold in Mexico.

Detroit-based GM told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the recall Monday after concluding its own investigation first launched in January 2009.[my emphasis]

The news that this happens after the cars’ warranty expires is bad. But note the difference here with Toyota: GM did their own investigation. Toyota, on the other hand, didn’t even start one until NHTSA made them do so. And even then, they did so with a firm designed to produce a whitewash.

GM will likely find reason to be embarrassed over this. (And I hope the things they said about the Cruze’s quality, which launches this year, are true.) But there is still a lesson here in stonewalling versus a real effort to solve the problem.

Toyota Pays Whitewash Firm to Produce UNBELIEVABLY Bad Whitewash

To get an idea of just how ridiculously bad the Toyota-funded study of its “sticky accelerator” problem is, you need only compare the 6 vehicles the contractor in question purchased to study, with the years and makes of vehicles Toyota has recalled.

Here are the 6 cars the contractor has studied:

  • 2002 Camry (North American VIN)
  • 2007 Camry (Japanese VIN)
  • 2007 FJ Cruiser (Japanese VIN)
  • 2008 Sienna (North American VIN)
  • 2006 Lexus IS 250 (Japanese VIN)
  • 2006 Lexus IS 350 (Japanese VIN)

And here are the vehicles recalled on January 21, 2010 for the “sticky accelerator” problem:

  • 2009-2010 RAV4  (except Japanese VINs)
  • 2009-2010 Corolla  (except Japanese VINs)
  • 2009-2010 Matrix
  • 2005-2010 Avalon
  • 2007-2010 Camry (except Japanese VINs)
  • 2010 Highlander (except Japanese VINs)
  • 2007-2010 Tundra
  • 2008-2010 Sequoia

Further, Toyota makes it clear that no Lexuses have been recalled, nor any of the following models: Prius, Tacoma, Sienna, Venza, Solara, Yaris, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser and Highlander hybrids, and Camry hybrids.

And just to be over-cautious, here are the vehicles recalled for the “floor mat problem” on September 29, 2009:

  • 2007 – 2010 Camry
  • 2005 – 2010 Avalon
  • 2004 – 2009 Prius
  • 2005 – 2010 Tacoma
  • 2007 – 2010 Tundra

In other words, not a single car the contractor has been studying for the past two months is suspected of having this problem!! It has limited its testing primarily to cars with Japanese VINS. One exception–the Sienna–was not included in either of the recalls. And the other–the 2002 Camry–is an older model than the recalled Camrys.

There is a lot more glaringly, embarrassingly wrong with this study (starting with the fact that the contractor in question only pulled 6 Toyota cars in the first place) as well as the fact that the contractor is a known whitewash specialist. (h/t PJEvans) I’ll get to those once I’ve reviewed the study more closely.

But for now, know that Toyota paid a contractor to try to replicate this problem in a group of cars–just 6 cars–that Toyota doesn’t apparently suspect of having the problem.

Will Akio Toyoda Testify on Brakes?

As you may know, there are a slew of hearings scheduled next week to try to understand the Toyota brake problems. The head of Toyota (and grandson of the company founder) caused a bit of a stir yesterday when he tried to correct the mistaken impression that he would testify personally.

Akio Toyoda told a press conference Wednesday morning that he would not travel from Tokyo to Washington, D.C., to answer questions from a Congressional panel on car safety. No, this is not as bad as when General Motors sicked detectives on Ralph Nader, but Toyota is getting there.

“I trust that our officials in the U.S. will amply answer the questions,” Toyoda said.

Rather than have a guy bearing the company name testify, Toyota was sending Yoshimi Inaba, President of Toyota North America and–rather significantly–someone who was away from the company for two of the years in which Toyota was not responding to its own brake problems. In addition, Inaba’s background with the company is also primarily in sales, not engineering. In other words, rather than have Toyoda testify, the company was sending a guy who, just six months after he assumed a position of authority, agreed to recall millions of cars.

At the same press conference yesterday, Toyoda said he might consider testifying personally if he was invited.

But after persistent questioning, Mr. Toyoda said he “would consider” appearing before Congress if he receives a formal invitation, which none of the committees have issued.

So, in an unsurprising move, the House Reform Committee has now done just that, invite Toyoda to testify publicly.

Dear Mr. Toyoda:

As you know, there is widespread public concern regarding reports of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota motor vehicles.  Toyota has recalled millions of its vehicles and even halted production.  In addition, there are reports that this problem may have been the direct cause of serious injury and even death.

There appears to be growing public confusion regarding which vehicles may be affected and how people should respond.  In short, the public is unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it.

To help clarify this situation, I am inviting you to testify at a hearing of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday, February 24, 2010, at 10 a.m. in room 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.



Edolphus Towns


It’ll be hard for Toyoda to decline this invitation and save face. So it’ll be interesting to see how serious Toyoda is about not testifying under oath to the US Congress.

Update: Toyoda accepts.

We are pleased Mr. Toyoda accepted the invitation to testify before the Committee.  We believe his testimony will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers.

Toyota's Revolving Door and Failing Brakes

I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid piling on the Toyota recall story. But this excellent Bloomberg story–describing how two former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials helped Toyota avoid more comprehensive responses to its brake failures on four different occasions–deserves a lot of attention.

Former regulators hired by Toyota Motor Corp. helped end at least four U.S. investigations of unintended acceleration by company vehicles in the last decade, warding off possible recalls, court and government records show.Christopher Tinto, vice president of regulatory affairs in Toyota’s Washington office, and Christopher Santucci, who works for Tinto, helped persuade the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to end probes including those of 2002-2003 Toyota Camrys and Solaras, court documents show. Both men joined Toyota directly from NHTSA, Tinto in 1994 and Santucci in 2003.


NHTSA opened eight investigations of unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles from 2003 to 2010, according to Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth, Massachusetts, group that gathers data from NHTSA and other sources for plaintiff’s attorneys and consumers. Three of the probes resulted in recalls for floor mats. Five were closed, meaning NHTSA found no evidence of a defect.

In four of the five cases that were closed, Tinto and Santucci worked with NHTSA on Toyota’s responses to the consumer complaints the agency was investigating, agency documents show.

Here are the four known investigations that were limited or squelched:

March 2004: NHTSA limits investigation of throttle control system to unintended acceleration events lasting less than a minute, seemingly dismissing longer unintended acceleration problems because driver may have used the wrong pedal. (114 similar cases found)

2005: NHTSA ends investigation after Toyota tells it there was “no evidence of a system or component failure was found and the vehicles were operating as designed” (100 cases found; 59 investigated)

August 2006: Toyota says it finds “no abnormality in the throttle actuator, or controller, which the petitioner blamed,” but does find “evidence that returned actuators had corroded due to water intrusion caused by circumstances ‘such as driving through a flooded road, in the heavy rain or a hurricane’ and a drain hose was modified to prevent future water intrusion” (3,546 cases addressed under warranty)

2008: Toyota says it “couldn’t find enough evidence to support allegations of unintended acceleration in 2006-2007 Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks” (478 incidents reported)

One things that becomes clear from this is that there have been a significant (though not huge) number of complaints on these issues. While I can’t be sure, it seems that at least one of these was only addressed at the dealer level, which would not be able to determine a bigger electronic issue.

Now, as the article makes clear, there’s no evidence that the two former NHTSA employees did anything improper in their work with Toyota. But it does appear these former NHTSA knew how to game the system to make sure NHTSA decided it wasn’t worth its time to investigate as each new complaint surfaced.

Trashed: Formula One No Longer Made In Japan

As you all might know, we here at Emptywheel are car people. And one annoying thread ran common as a persistent undercurrent through all of our auto and auto bailout coverage over the last year, and that was how pitiful and incompetent the American marques were, how much they deserved their fate and how awesome the Japanese brands, especially Toyota and Honda, were in comparison. This was incredibly disturbing because, as rudimentary as rolling iron seems on the surface, the automotive industry is incredibly complex and vertically integrated; it simply is not amenable to to simplisms and truisms that were bandied about in those tumultuous days.

Sadly, it is a meme that persists even today in spite of the fact that all manufacturers, very much including those in Japan, are sucking air and taking on water. And, no, their cars are not that much better either, they have quality and safety problems too.

For all of its ballyhooed efficiency, quality control and supposed relative superiority, the Japanese auto industry always was built on the shoulders and technology of the American manufacturers; they wanted the sales sector of the Americans and the aura of the Europeans. Since the Japanese marques first started their meteoric rise in prominence in the 70s, the holy grail for them was to compete and win on the highest stage in the world. Formula One. But the wake of the global financial meltdown has trashed their fortunes, and their goals, every bit as hard as it pounded the American car business. The pursuit of the holy grail is over, first for Honda last December, and now for Toyota:

Toyota announced Wednesday that it would give up its prized Formula One racing team in an effort to slash costs, refocus the company on green cars and turn a profit amid continued weakness in the auto sector.

Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, joins a growing exodus of Japanese auto companies from racing, highlighting the woes facing the country’s once cash-rich manufacturers. Honda pulled out of Formula One racing in December, while the tire-maker Bridgestone said this week that it would not renew its exclusive deal to supply tires to the series when its contract expires in 2010.

Subaru and Suzuki pulled out of the World Rally Championship before the season, citing concerns about the global crisis, while Kawasaki is quitting MotoGP, the top motorcycle competition.

“I hope you will understand that based on the current business environment we have no choice but to make this very painful decision,” Akio Toyoda, the Toyota president, said at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday. “To all fans, I apologize from the bottom of my heart.”

Akido Toyoda literally cried as he made the announcement. Make no mistake, there was cause; he, Toyota and Japan had all lost face with the withdrawal from Formula One. The Japanese do not take Read more

No, DiFi, the Competition Is with Canada (and Mexico)

I’ve been meaning to cover the likely closure of the joint Toyota-GM plant in Fremont, CA for some time. But this comment from DiFi is worth a post in itself.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., led a delegation of state lawmakers who said Thursday that they were exploring the use of stimulus funds among other moves to keep Toyota in California.

"But one of the things California has to come to grips with is that the competition here is Kentucky and Mississippi, and you have this high cost-of-doing-business problem," said Feinstein, who phoned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to talk about Nummi.

The NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc) plant was opened as a joint venture between Toyota and GM in 1984. Back then it was a shiny new-fangled plant–the future of auto assembly in the United States. It’s also, notably, Toyota’s only unionized American plant. GM has pulled out of the partnership as part of its bankruptcy which has led Toyota to consider closing the plant altogether. DiFi and the rest of CA’s politicos are scrambling to save the 4700 high-paid union jobs.

And, apparently, DiFi has created a myth for herself that she is competing with (just) Kentucky and Mississippi for these jobs.

To the extent that CA is now putting together a set of incentives to convince Toyota to stay–a model pioneered by southern states–she is correct. And to the extent that Toyota might move the Corolla and Tacoma production to their currently vacant MS plant (which was originally slated to assemble the Prius), she is correct that she’s competing against MS.

But the more likely location for the production currently done in Fremont, CA is–for the Tacoma–Mexico and–for the Corolla–Canada, where factories that already produce those models are currently running below capacity.

In addition, Toyota has plenty of unused production capacity in North America — including factories in Mexico and Canada that make the Tacoma and the Corolla, said George Peterson, president of Tustin consulting firm AutoPacific.


Toyota’s sales in the U.S. are down almost 38% this year as the auto industry suffers its worst slump in decades. As a result, the automaker has excess production capacity at its North American auto plants, which can produce more than 400,000 vehicles a year.

Read more

GAO: Advanced Hybrids May Not Be Best Way for GM to Rebound

picture-98.pngThere’s a lot of good information (and bleak news) in this GAO report on GM’s and Chrysler’s efforts to become viable again–including this picture that shows the key relationships in the industry and the credit that underlies each of those relationships.

But I wanted to point to GAO’s explanation of something I’ve often argued–to much skepticism here and elsewhere. Investing heavily in new technologies like hybrids may hurt GM’s efforts (certainly in the short term) to become more viable.

In a section addressing the things that GM and Chrysler aren’t doing to achieve viability, GAO warns that advanced technology vehicles don’t have the return on investment GM needs to become profitable again.

Several panelists noted that not only is developing advanced technology vehicles expensive, but also the return on the investment in those vehicles can be low because the initial demand for new technologies can be slow to develop. For example, the Toyota Prius was on the market for 10 years before reaching 1 million units sold. According to our panel, given the high development costs and low initial demand, especially if gasoline prices remain relatively low, these new vehicles are not likely to generate a profit for several years. Thus, changing the companies’ product mix to include more advanced technology vehicles may not be the best way to improve the financial bottom line in the short term. Furthermore, at least one panelist questioned whether the necessary energy infrastructure, such as electrical outlets to charge batteries, will be available to support these new technologies. Without adequate infrastructure, consumers will be reluctant to purchase these new advanced technology vehicles. GM officials acknowledged these challenges but indicated that the company decided to continue investing in advanced technologies even during the current financial crisis because they need this technology in their fleet to help meet federal fuel economy standards in the future. In addition, GM officials said they are planning for higher oil prices than current futures market expectations, in order to make GM’s plan more robust against oil price volatility. [my emphasis]

Now, frankly GM is right to remain committed to the Volt even given such challenges. The Prius took a long time to become profitable, but the halo effect Prius has had on Toyota’s overall brand is one of the main reasons people believe a company that invested heavily, strategically, in the Tundra is all about gas efficiency.

But I wanted to point out Read more

Honda, Toyota, Fail More in December than Two of Three "Failed" US Carmakers

Car sales in December were–as expected–still way down as compared to last year. But as with November, there were some interesting numbers last month. Remember–these are year on year declines (which suggests the total market is down slightly less than it was in November):

Make      Decline

Chrysler   53%
Hyundai   48%
Toyota      37%
Honda      35%
Ford          32%
Nissan      31%
GM            31%
Daimler    25%
VW            14%
Subaru      7.7%

I’m still looking for Hyundai’s US numbers, and Chrysler (which I suspect really tanked) won’t announce until later in the day.

While GM and Ford still lost more sales across the year than Toyota and Honda (because they also tanked during the gas price crash of the summer), their performance against Toyota and Honda more recently demonstrates the degree to which recent sales are a credit driven issue, and not what Richard Shelby likes to claim is a failed business model. 

Moreover, there is better news for Ford in the numbers, as its market share is beginning to rise for the first time since 2001.

Ford took an optimistic view of December’s results, noting that its December market share rose to 14.6%, up 0.7 percentage point from a year ago — the first time since 1997 it had achieved a market share increase for three straight months.

"This is a strong ending to…a very challenging year," said marketing chief Jim Farley. Ford projected a fourth-quarter 15% market share for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury — beating the year-ago figure for the first time since 2001, it said.

I keep looking at these relative numbers because we’re basically looking at two questions in the auto market right now. First, who can survive in the next two years, as the market for cars remains at these contracted levels? Because of the debt the American companies have, the answer to that question is undoubtedly the Japanese car companies. But the other question is who can survive best over the next two years? The rules of the game have changed, and surviving best will be as much about managing inventories on a month to month basis as anything else. And Ford, at least, (which outperformed Toyota and Honda last month as well), looks like it is winning that game in the short term.

Particularly as more people realize that Ford is somehow "different" than GM and Chrysler (because it didn’t need a bailout), Ford has the opportunity to really turn its brand image around. Read more