Toyota's claims of extensive testing untrue, lawmakers charge

McClatchy NewspapersMay 20, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Thursday blasted Toyota Motor Corp., charging that the automaker misled the American public about its investigation into the sudden unexpected accelerations that led to the recall of 8 million Toyota vehicles globally.

In the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel's second hearing about the sudden accelerations, Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said Toyota had engaged in "damage control" and that "the record does not support Toyota's statement that the company conducted extensive testing."

"The truth is that we don't know whether the electronics play a role in sudden, unintended acceleration, and Toyota doesn't, either," Stupak said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said that neither Toyota nor its outside engineering firm, California-based Exponent, could produce evidence of in-depth testing of Toyota's electronic controls. Waxman and other members of the Energy and Commerce Committee interviewed an Exponent engineer and found that the company keeps no written timelines or work plans for its experiments. Documents presented at the hearing show that Exponent has billed more than 11,000 hours for its work.

"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. "Toyota's assertions may be good public relations, but they don't appear to be true."

Stupak and other lawmakers asserted that Toyota hired Exponent to review the work of Southern Illinois University professor David Gilbert, who told the committee in February that he replicated a sudden acceleration incident in a Toyota vehicle that indicated a flaw in its electronics system.

Tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration support Toyota's contentions that the electronic throttle controls aren't to blame for the accidents. NHTSA chief David Strickland said the agency would continue to investigate these issues.

"We found no evidence of additional causes of the defect, but that doesn't mean we've stopped looking," Strickland said.

Toyota U.S. sales chief James Lentz said Toyota was "undertaking a top-to-bottom review." Toyota has blamed the problems on jammed floor mats, sticky pedals or driver error.

"We are taking major steps to become a more responsive, safety-focused organization: listening more closely to our customers, responding more quickly to their concerns and those of our regulators," Lentz said.

Toyota took heat from the lawmakers during the hearing over the company's relationship with Exponent. Documents obtained by the subcommittee show that Exponent has a contract not with the company, but with Toyota's outside law firm. Lentz told the committee that that relationship changes "this week," and Exponent now will report to Toyota's chief quality officer in North America.

"I am confident in that what they are doing, we will see a very independent report," Lentz said. "I understand the perception that this is not a very transparent process."

During the hearing, Strickland and subcommittee members discussed the expected recall of Toyota's luxury Lexus LS vehicles. Strickland said he thought that Toyota would submit the recall information to NHTSA on Friday. When asked, Lentz said he didn't know the timeline for the recall.

The recall will affect 3,800 2010 LS models in the United States, but Strickland said his agency had yet to hear of a complaint in the U.S. Toyota received 12 complaints from Japan, where the recall started.

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