WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers expressed frustration Thursday that Toyota was no closer to determining if problems with sudden, unintended acceleration in its vehicles was due to electronic issues. The acceleration issue was blamed for at least 19 deaths and has cost Toyota $16.4 million in fines.
“Toyota seems to have been more interested in messaging than scientific inquiry,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said of Toyota’s response to the crisis, saying the world’s largest automaker focused on attacking its critics instead of solving the acceleration problem.
When Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University testified before Congress in February and offered a possible link between the vehicles’ electronic systems and sudden unintended acceleration, Toyota discredited his research.
The car maker issued a statement in March saying that Gilbert “reengineered and rewired” signals from the accelerator pedal, which Toyota said was “highly unlikely to occur naturally and can only be contrived in a laboratory.”
Appearing before the committee on Thursday, Toyota Motor Sales USA President James Lentz testified: “Toyota remains confident that our electronic throttle control system is not a cause of unintended acceleration.”
Lentz said that the company has performed hundreds of vehicle inspections and “none of these investigations have found that our electronic throttle control system with intelligence … was the cause.
“I’m more confident today than I was in the past,” Lentz said.
But lawmakers doubted his confidence, asking him how he could be sure that there were no electrical problems when the independent investigation was not finished and there was evidence that the engineering consulting firm was being controlled by Toyota.
Lawmakers said that the firm hired to look into the problem, Exponent, was first recruited by Toyota’s defense counsel to protect against class actions filed against the company. In response to lawmakers’ requests for documents, Exponent modified and refused to turn over materials, committee members said. Stupak said the firm “acted like it has something to hide.”
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, pointed to a letter outlining the contract between Exponent and Toyota product liability attorneys Bowman and Brooke: “Our scope of services is anticipated to include engineering consulting services related to class actions,” the letter stated. Braley reported that Exponent received $9.1 million from Toyota from 2004 through 2009, billing out work at more than $300 per hour.
“That is how the relationship began, but as it has evolved…” Lentz said, before being interrupted with Braley, who interjected: “Until you came up here this week.”
Braley was referring to Lentz’s statement that, as of this week, Exponent no longer reports through the product liability attorneys, and now reports directly to the new chief quality officer for North America, Steve St. Angelo.
“I understand the perception that this is not a very transparent process,” Lentz said.
He added that the new reporting structure has not altered the contract between Exponent and Bowman and Brooke.
“I’m confident that with what they’re doing we will see a very independent report,” Lentz said of Exponent’s work, citing 11,000 hours of testing performed so far.
But in a report issued by Exponent, the firm said it has found “nothing remarkable,” and it has not yet “opined on the cause of the incidents of unintended acceleration.”
Lawmakers criticized Toyota for relying only on Exponent’s testing and premarket testing by Japanese engineers during the design phase to uncover the issue.
Committee members also asked about whether Toyota’s plan to include a brake override system in all of its 2011 vehicles, as well as retrofit some previous models, was a safety necessity or a publicity stunt.
Lentz said it was a move to boost consumer confidence rather than a safety measure.
“I can’t say 100 percent that they necessarily make cars safer,” Lentz said. When asked if he drove a car with a brake override system, he said he did, but added, “My son does not have brake override in his vehicle.”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration David Strickland, who also testified at the hearing, confirmed that his agency is “no closer” to finding out if there is a potential link between an electronic problem and sudden intended acceleration.”
The agency purchased one of the runaway vehicles and is currently testing it but has not discovered any problems so far.
The agency invited professor Gilbert to visit a facility in Ohio in the next two weeks to take part in the research. “We are welcoming Dr. Gilbert’s participation,” Strickland said.
Strickland also said Toyota paid its $16.4 million fine Wednesday, which was assessed by the Department of Transportation in April.