We all love stories about renegade do-gooders taking on large corporations to expose wrongdoing or an attempts to deceive the public. To some, that’s the story of David Gilbert, a Southern Illinois University professor who sought to prove that Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems that have led the company to recall more than 9 million vehicles worldwide, were caused by electronic errors, not mechanical irregularities like floor mats and sticky pedals as the Japanese car mammoth claims.
The problem, says Gilbert, is that his University receives a large sum of its research funds from Toyota, giving the company weight to pressure the school’s administrators to discredit Gilbert’s research in order to maintain favor with Toyota. Although Gilbert maintains that his purpose was simply to find the truth about these problems, a University spokesman told the Washington Post that “it did kind of catch us off-guard.”
The University even received clear requests that Gilbert be removed from his position. In March, a Toyota Motor Sales employee — and SIU alum — Mark Thompson wrote to the school’s chancellor about his “great concern and disappointment” at Gilbert’s work. After reminding the chancellor about his regular contributions including a $100,000 check to the auto-tech program, Thompson wrote “I believe he should not be an employee of our fine university.”
Gilbert told the newspaper that he never felt like his job was in danger, even though “there were some moments where I kind of felt I was standing alone.” This led attorney critics, like Ted Frank at PointofLaw.com, to say the allegations that Toyota pressured Gilbert against making his testimony were blown out of proportion. Due to “the use of internal university documents without any mention of their provenance,” he wrote, “the story was almost certainly hand-crafted and hand-delivered by plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
Frank has a point that at times, the article reads like caricature of an epic poem description of Gilbert’s quest. But from the evidence provided, it is clear that there was an attempt to suppress Gilbert’s testimony, even if it was not fully endorsed by Toyota. The Stanford University Center for Automotive Research, for example, an organization funded by Toyota and a handful of other car companies, has told reporters that Gilbert’s work “could result in misguided policy and unwarranted fear.”
Either way, to determine whether Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems were caused by electrical or mechanical issues, Congress will need more scientific data. In the mean time, I’d like to see such organizations and universities putting resources toward boosting car safety rather than defending car companies from attacks by notable scientists in the field of auto safety.
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