Toyota's Webcast Disputes Claims of Electronics Failures

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Having moved beyond apologizing for its quality woes, Toyota Motor (TM) went on the offensive Monday, taking to task outside tests performed by a Southern Illinois University professor showing its electronic throttle-control system was susceptible to glitches that could lead to sudden and dramatic acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

During a live Webcast Monday, Toyota raised issues with the methodology and credibility of a demonstration by Southern Illinois University professor David Gilbert and depicted in an ABC News segment late last month that showed the throttle-control system of Toyota Avalon sedan could be easily manipulated into producing sudden uncontrolled acceleration. Gilbert also testified before Congress about his findings.

Toyota says its own tests, conducted by consulting-firm Exponent Inc. (EXPO) and Toyota engineers, revealed several problems with the "artificial nature" of Gilbert's tests and "found no evidence to suggest that any of the steps of Professor Gilbert's demonstration exists in the real world."

Further, Toyota said Gilbert's reengineering and rewiring of the vehicle's electrical system involves manipulating the throttle-control system in a specific sequence that includes cutting insulation on wires, including one that goes to the accelerator pedal. These conditions, the company said, wouldn't exist in the real world.

"An Engine Responds Very Differently in Park"

In the Webcast, Toyota also raised questions about the ABC News segment, showing still images of the program depicting illuminated warning lights that appear when the car's transmission in "park." "An engine responds very differently in park than when it is being driven and is under load," said Exponent engineer Matthew Schwall.

Toyota also says that ABC has since pulled the original video from its website and replaced with a modified version that shows different images. An ABC spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal the network had no comment on Toyota's presentation and added it was preparing its own story about it.

In his testimony last month, Gilbert said he was able to "fool" Toyota's throttle-control system by manipulating its electronics to recreate the sudden acceleration problem. While he was able to easily fool Toyota's system, Gilbert told lawmakers his attempts on other vehicles, such as a Buick Lucerne sedan manufactured by General Motors, weren't successful.

But in its Webcast Monday, Toyota said engineers who followed Gilbert's protocol were able to fool systems on other vehicles, including a BMW 325, without causing the on-board computer to record a fault code. "There is no defect with this vehicle," Exponent's Schwall said. "The engine only accelerated because we rewired the same way as in Dr. Gilbert's method."

Taking a Harder Line

In response to complaints about unintended acceleration, Toyota has issued two recalls involving 8 million cars to trim gas pedals that might get snagged on heavy rubber mats or to insert shims between accelerator parts to eliminate stickiness. In the U.S., accidents caused by uncontrolled acceleration in Toyotas are attributable to the deaths of more than 50 people, according to the National Traffic Safety Highway Administration.

Lawmakers have taken an increasingly harder line on Toyota, asking the company for proof that it has conducted tests that look at whether electronics can indeed play a role in unintended acceleration incidents.

The latest call came Monday from Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Citing a report in the Los Angeles Times in which veteran Toyota employees tried to alert the company in 2006 to possible "dangerous safety and manpower shortcuts," Towns asked Toyota to turn over the workers' memo informing company management about their concerns.

In a letter to Yoshimi Inaba, president and CEO of Toyota Motor North America, Towns said, "If senior Toyota officials ignored important safety concerns raised by their own employees, it calls into question Toyota's corporate priorities and its commitment to safety."
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