Special Coverage

Toyota's Safety Crisis

Fixing sticky accelerators and solving floor-mat issues may not solve all sudden unintended acceleration issues in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles, the auto maker’s top U.S. executive admits to Congress today.

Pressed by Henry Waxman, D-CA, in hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, James Lentz, president and chief operating officer, says modifications to eliminate accelerator-pedal friction and avoid interference with floor mats would “not totally” eliminate chances for sudden unintended acceleration to occur.

Asked by Waxman what would solve the problem, Lentz says, “We need to continue to be vigilant and investigate all complaints from consumers that we’ve done such a bad job with in the past.”

But he says Toyota has looked into its electronic controls and has not found any defects that would lead to sudden acceleration.

Lentz cites a study it commissioned by Exponent, an engineering consulting firm, that failed to find an electronic defect in the Toyotas it tested.

But Bart Stupak, D-MI, the committee’s chairman, ridicules that study in his opening remarks, saying it failed to address electromagnetic interference issues and didn’t study a single vehicle on Toyota’s recall list.

“It’s a flawed study, nowhere near adequate,” he says.

Says Lentz: “We continue to test and have not found a malfunction. But that doesn’t mean we stop. There are many more steps to complete. What’s important is to investigate as quickly as possible (consumer complaints) so we know what’s going on. In the past, we haven’t done a very good job of that.”

The TMS CEO says he is “embarrassed” by the auto maker’s handling of a report of unintended sudden acceleration by Rhonda Smith, who testified before the committee that her complaint of a runaway car went ignored.

“I’m embarrassed about what happened,” Lentz says. “We will go down there and get the car and find out what happened.”

In his opening statement, Lentz admits it has taken Toyota “too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues” and that the problem was compounded by “poor communications” with regulators and customers.

Pressed by Stupak on whether 70% of Toyota’s complaint database represents unsolved cases related to unintended acceleration, Lentz says, “That’s fair to say.”

The Toyota executive says he is unsure what could be learned from onboard event data recorders. But he adds Toyota will make 100 diagnostic tools available in the U.S. so that NHTSA and others could begin examine so-called black-box data on vehicles involved in acceleration incidents.

“We welcome anyone that can find a problem with our electronics,” Lenz says.

Toyota also will be looking into whether electromagnetic interference could have caused electronics to fail and trigger unintended sudden acceleration.

“Toyota has not tested for EMI yet, but it is going to be tested, and we’ll give you the results,” Lentz tells the committee.

Toyota will update software on most of its models so that a car’s throttle is cut off when the brake also is being pressed. Lenz says all ʼ11 vehicles will have the upgraded software, and the auto maker will retrofit seven other models on the road capable of accommodating the improved software.

In earlier testimony, David Gilbert, a Southern Illinois University professor, tells the panel he was able to produce in a lab environment a sudden-acceleration incident using a Toyota vehicle, in essence by introducing a short between two circuits.

Gilbert, whose research was sponsored by consumer advocacy firm Safety Research & Strategies, says it was fairly simple to confuse the Toyota electronics, but he has so far been unable to introduce a similar failure in the electronic controls for a Buick Lucerne.

Coming to Toyota’s aid was Steve Buyer, R-IN, whose voting district includes the Subaru of Indiana Inc. assembly plant that builds Toyota Camry models.

Buyer challenged Gilbert’s research on the grounds he was paid by SRS, itself funded by trial lawyers actively suing Toyota over alleged vehicle defects.

“I’m uncomfortable with some of the testimony,” Buyer says, who badgers SRS founder Sean Kane until he admits he paid Gilbert $1,800 and donated $4,000 in equipment toward the study and has promised to pay him $150 per hour for future services.

“Now I’m getting a better picture,” Buyer says.

Gilbert says the most important thing Toyota can do is upgrade the throttle software, as planned, but he says Toyota also should reevaluate its software protocol to ensure failsafe measures can’t be subverted.

Congressional panelists kicked off the hearings attacking both Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.’s handling of the Toyota recall crisis, while some, mostly in states where Toyota has manufacturing operations, called for the committee to “keep an open mind on what the problem is,” as did Joe Barton, R-TX, whose state has a Toyota truck factory.

“We should not go on a witch hunt,” Barton says.

Panelists derided NHTSA’s handling of the defects reports, with Waxman calling for more resources and “expertise” for the safety agency, which he says hasn’t kept up with changes in automobile technology.

“Legislation is needed,” he says. “NHTSA is stuck in a mechanical mindset. We need to make sure they have the resources needed.”

Bobby Rush, D-IL, says it appears a separate committee will try to determine whether NHTSA has the appropriate staffing and resources next month when Congress considers whether to reauthorize the agency.

dzoia@wardsauto.com