Congressional inquiry into Toyota SUA reinforces link to electrical system

posted on:
February 24, 2010

author:
Kurt Niland

Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales (TMS), U.S.A., Inc. testified before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations yesterday, squaring off with legislators over his company’s record of handling sudden unintended acceleration problems affecting millions of its vehicles. Lentz’s delicate balancing act involved defending his company’s handling of the sudden unintended acceleration problem and apologizing for it at the same time.

Most importantly, Lentz conceded that much more work needed to be done to find what’s causing the acceleration problems. Traditionally, Toyota has blamed unintended acceleration incidents on gas pedal entrapment by the floor mat, sticky accelerator pedals, or just bad driving. Lentz has repeatedly told the media that Toyota is confident electronics aren’t to blame for the incidents of cars running away unexpectedly at high speeds. However, Lentz’s firm stance on the electronics issue softened when asked about the measures currently being taken to fix recalled vehicles.

Toyota has recalled more than 4 million vehicles for possible floor mat entrapment of the gas pedal. However, many if not most sudden unintended acceleration incidents can’t be pinned on floor mats because they were either properly positioned at the time of the incident or absent from the vehicle altogether. Toyota later recalled nearly 2.5 million additional vehicles for sticky accelerator pedals, yet that mechanical issue has not been linked to any acceleration incidents.

Joe Barton (R-Tex) called the mechanical fixes — shortening the gas pedal one and a half inches and installing a metal shim in the throttle assembly to reduce friction in the gas pedal – “a sham” designed to make the customer feel better, not real solutions to a potentially deadly problem.

Bart Stupak (D-Mich) said that Toyota “misled the American public by saying that they and other independent sources had thoroughly analyzed the electronics systems and eliminated electronics as a possible cause of sudden unintended acceleration when, in fact, the only such review was a flawed study conducted by a company retained by Toyota’s lawyers.”

Assertions that Toyota has failed to address the fundamental problem – a glitch in the electronic throttle control – was backed up by credible evidence presented by Dr. David Gilbert, an automotive technology professor at Southern Illinois University.

Dr. Gilbert testified that he had heard media reports of unintended acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles that piqued his interest and prompted him to investigate the matter on his own. After examining and testing the electronic control system from a Toyota, Dr. Gilbert was able to find that he could easily introduce a fault to the system. The error was so easy to introduce that Dr. Gilbert was able to make his determination after just 3 and a half hours of testing. Dr. Gilbert testified that the parameters in the electronic controls of other vehicles, such as the Buick, were much tighter and more difficult to challenge.

Alarmed by his findings, Dr. Gilbert sent unsolicited test results to Toyota, NHTSA, and Sean Kane at Safety Research and Strategies, who paid Dr. Kane $1,800 for further testing that was included in his report to Congress.

Toyota in turn paid consulting firm Exponent an undisclosed amount of money to conduct a study on six Toyota vehicles, which safety and automotive experts say is flawed and incomplete.

Dr. Gilbert read Exponent’s report and told the Committee that “the very thing that I did to introduce a fault within the system was exactly the thing that [Exponent] left out of the report.”

“They did 19 tests but they did not do a circuit analysis of a short between the 2 signal circuits,” Dr. Gilbert added.

Dr. Gilbert’s technical testimony followed Rhonda Smith’s highly emotional account of her sudden, unintended acceleration incident. Smith was driving her Lexus in Sevierville, Tennessee, in 2006 when it began to race over 100 miles per hour without interference of the floor mat. She shifted to all gears including neutral and reverse, applied the brakes, locked the emergency brake, and attempted to turn off the ignition, but nothing slowed the car. After 6 minutes of racing violently, her vehicle came to a stop on the median.

Mrs. Smith and her husband made several attempts to have their vehicle fixed, but Toyota said nothing was wrong with it. After detailing the sudden acceleration incident, Toyota responded that a car could accelerate unintentionally if not properly maintained, even though the Smiths’ Lexus had less than 3,000 miles on it at the time of the incident.

Jim Lentz told the Committee that he was ashamed to hear the Smiths’ story.

“Listening to Mrs. Smith, I am embarrassed for what happened. And we are going to go down and get that car so that they feel satisfied. I want her and her husband to feel safe driving our products. I was embarrassed to hear their story,” Lentz said.

Lentz told the Committee that Toyota had already begun installing a brake override system in cars currently in production. The brake override would allow drivers to slow the vehicle when simultaneously traveling at a high rate of speed and braking. Although the system would not prevent an unintended acceleration incident from occurring, it would give brakes priority over the throttle in such an event.

Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.) asked Jim Lentz how Toyota planned to handle the acceleration problem for cars that are on the road today. Lentz replied that certain high-end Toyota and Lexus models were being retrofitted with the brake override. He also said that Toyota would install the additional safety feature in all the remaining vehicles if it’s technically possible.

When asked how Toyota went from number one in quality and customer satisfaction to its present state, Lentz told Congress that Toyota had “lost sight of the customer.”

Toyota’s President, Akio Toyoda, who is the grandson of the founder, has said that his company likely grew too fast for its own good. He is testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today.

 

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