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Toyota's acceleration testing still inadequate, House members say

The automaker's assertions that 'extensive testing' has been conducted for electronic defects 'don't appear to be true,' Rep. Henry Waxman says.

May 20, 2010|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
  • David Strickland, left, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, talks to James Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, before the House hearing on the automaker's problems.
David Strickland, left, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — House lawmakers Thursday charged that Toyota Motor Corp. still had not done the testing required to determine the cause of sudden unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles and had been more concerned about its image than addressing the issue.

Toyota has said it was confident electronics were not causing vehicles to speed up suddenly — a point repeated in congressional testimony Thursday by its top U.S. sales executive.

But Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that his panel's investigation had raised serious questions about the scope of Toyota's efforts.

"Toyota has repeatedly told the public that it has conducted extensive testing of its vehicles for electronic defects. We can find no basis for these assertions," Waxman said at a hearing on the issue. "Toyota's assertions may be good public relations, but they don't appear to be true."

Toyota has issued nearly 11 million recall notices for its vehicles around the world since last fall and is under at least eight federal safety investigations and reviews. The company also has paid U.S. regulators a record $16.4-million fine for failing to promptly recall models that had a so-called sticky pedal problem.

Lawmakers have been investigating Toyota's handling of the sudden acceleration problems and are considering legislation that would toughen safety standards and significantly increase the maximum fines for violations of federal safety rules.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said the company's response seemed to be focused on public relations and avoiding lawsuits.

"Unfortunately, Toyota appears to have been more interested in messaging than scientific inquiry," he said.

The committee investigation found e-mails from Benenson Strategy Group, a public relations firm hired by Toyota, that did polling test messages to be used in ads and public statements to improve the company's image after the recalls.

Among the messages were attacks on the findings by David Gilbert, a professor at Southern Illinois University, who testified to the committee in February that he had triggered sudden acceleration in a Toyota vehicle without setting off an error code in the vehicle's computer.

Toyota hired a testing firm, Exponent Inc., to review Gilbert's findings. Exponent disputed the findings as part of a public presentation held by Toyota in March at the company's Torrance operations center aimed at debunking Gilbert's research.

Stupak called Exponent's report "a hit job, not solid science." He said Exponent had withheld documents from the committee's investigation and had modified some documents before producing them, "in direct violation of the committee's instructions."

Waxman questioned Toyota's statement that Exponent was conducting a comprehensive and independent review. The only document provided to the committee about their relationship, he said, was "a contract between Toyota's litigation defense counsel and Exponent for 'engineering consulting services related to class actions filed against Toyota.' "

"Nowhere in this document do Toyota's lawyers ask Exponent to conduct a comprehensive examination of sudden unintended acceleration. In fact, the words 'sudden unintended acceleration' do not even appear," Waxman said. "Toyota's lawyers appear to be involved in every aspect of Exponent's work, and the lawyers have the right to approve publication of all of Exponent's work."

An Exponent spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

James Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, testified that the automaker changed its relationship with Exponent this week. The firm no longer will report to product liability attorneys but to Toyota's chief quality officer, he said.

Lentz said that Exponent had done more than 11,000 hours of testing and analysis of Toyota's electronic throttle control system and that "its comprehensive evaluation is ongoing." The findings will be made public and undergo scientific peer review, he said.

Still, Lentz reiterated that Toyota "remains confident" that the electronic throttle control system was not causing sudden unintended acceleration.

David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told lawmakers that government investigations still had not found the cause of the acceleration problems beyond the improperly placed floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals that have been the focus of the recalls.

But Strickland said that NHTSA was taking Gilbert's research seriously and that he would meet with agency engineers in the next two weeks.

"We are leaving no theory unquestioned," Strickland said.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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