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Covering Up Redactions in NASA's
"Toyota Study" of Unintended Acceleration

Report redactions.

"So let's be clear..."
-Secretary Ray LaHood
February 8, 2011

An Inconvenient Fact

In June, 2011 we learned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had improperly claimed that portions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) reports about Toyota Unintended Acceleration kept secret from the public concerned confidential business information. We showed on our website the result of a particular Google search result demonstrating there had been no follow-up of a potentially important clue that might have linked known incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyotas to instances of data loss through the Controller Area Network.

No matter how else this inconvenient fact might be characterized, it is not a trade secret.

Redaction revealed
Figure 1. Google search results, June 24, 2011.

The lack of interest in the problem shown in this portion of the report - and kept secret by NHTSA - undercut claims made by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that NASA's and NHTSA's investigation was "one of the most exhaustive, thorough, and intensive research efforts ever taken."

NHTSA's answer to this revelation was to alter the source document and cover up the evidence of this investigatory lapse, so that a Google search query would no longer reveal "the secret."

The disappearing secret
Figure 2. Google search results, September 1, 2011.

Qs. Who Ordered the Document Be Altered? Why was the Document Altered?

On September 3, 2011 we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records "documenting the identities of the persons or organizations seeking or ordering modifications to these Toyota Unintended Acceleration reports as well as the identities of those who carried out the modifications, minutes of meetings and lists of attendees at which modifications to the Toyota Unintended Acceleration reports were discussed, documents stating any reasons, arguments, or demands to modify the Toyota Unintended Acceleration reports, as well as documents showing when, how, and by whom the modifications to the Toyota Unintended Acceleration reports were made and the expenses involved."


Our FOIA request began a remarkable five month long correspondence with NHTSA, in which the Agency at first denied that it had any records responsive to our request. When that position became untenable, NHTSA did disclose copies of numerous emails. However, these records were carefully redacted so that the identities of the person or persons at NHTSA who ordered the modifications and their reasons are never revealed. Many of the redactions were made on the astonishing grounds that such facts either are or would reveal trade secrets and commercial or financial information. An example is shown below.

Examples of records disclosed by NHTSA

Examples of records disclosed by NHTSA

Examples of records disclosed by NHTSA
Figure 3. Examples of records disclosed by NHTSA.

It is particularly remarkable that the entire substance of the disclosed records shown in Figure 3 has been withheld on the grounds that to do otherwise "would reveal information entitled to confidential treatment under FOIA Exemption 4." According to the FOIA statute, these are "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential." That is, every single word (including "and" and "the") in the email to NHTSA's Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and Chief Counsel is purported by NHTSA to be revelatory of trade secrets and commercial or financial information.

Ironically, it was the apparent untruth of exactly this type of Exemption 4 claim - demonstrated in Figures 1 and 2 above - that triggered our FOIA request in the first place. It is no less ironic that the official responsible for making the final Exemption 4 determination should be one of the three NHTSA officials to whom the communication is directed.

Cover-ups Discredit the "Spirit of Transparency" at NHTSA

The January 24, 2012 report by The New York Times that NHTSA is withholding from public disclosure video recordings, photographs, and other data gathered by its own engineers during episodes of unintended acceleration not caused by floor mats, sticky pedals, or driver error in a 2003 Toyota Prius is very troubling. According to the NYT, "The N.H.T.S.A. confirmed on Tuesday that it did conduct an investigation of [the] Prius but said it did not find any link to known causes of unintended acceleration." That NHTSA did not find any such link underscores precisely the importance of the public's right to see these data. This right is guaranteed by the Freedom of Information Act.

NHTSA's abuse of exemptions in the FOIA statute to prevent the review of factual evidence by independent scientists and researchers - while denigrating them as "groups that are continuing to raise the specter of potential electronic issues" - plainly discredits the Agency's stated commitment to the "spirit of transparency" in a way its critics never could.

Link to:

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Keeping Secrets about NASA's "Toyota Study" of Unintended Acceleration

Unintended Lessons in Quality Control: Toyota Motor Corp.

The Evolving Public Narrative of Unintended Acceleration

Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control Systems

Toyota and Lexus Speed Control Complaints

Sudden Unintended Steering in Toyota Corollas

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