Toyota Exec's Testimony Sheds Little Light on Unintended Acceleration Woes

toyota Toyota Motor (TM) still doesn't get it. Three months after its executives were hauled before Congress to explain safety and quality inadequacies, the company's chief U.S. sales officer, James Lentz, appeared before lawmakers Thursday to once again deny that electronics could possibly be a source of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

To date, however, Toyota has supplied no data to back up its claim. The engineering-consulting firm charged with looking into the matter, Exponent (EXPO), hasn't yet completed its investigation, Lentz told members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Lacking such a detailed report, wondered Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), "How can you be so sure" that electronics aren't a source of the problem?

"The only way that we can be sure ... is that we know we do a lot of work and a lot of research before we put the vehicles on the road," Lentz said. That's not unlike a college student saying there's no way he could have failed an exam because he studied for it.

Blaming the Problems on Driver Error

To address the unintended acceleration problem, Toyota has recalled nearly 8 million cars in the U.S. to fix sticky accelerator mechanisms or pare down gas pedals that could get hung up on bulky floor mats. But those issues are believed to be responsible for only 16% of incidents of unintended acceleration. So to what does Toyota attribute the vast majority of such incidents? "Pedal misapplication," Lentz told lawmakers. That's a diplomatic way of saying thousands of Toyota drivers confused their accelerators for their brake pedals.

If that wasn't insulting enough, Toyota owners have further reason to be concerned about Exponent and the research it is conducting into the automaker's woes. Until this week, Exponent answered to Toyota's lawyers -- not the company or its customers, Lentz explained, leaving many to question whether Toyota is earnest in its efforts to find the sources of its problems, or merely trying to dodge additional lawsuits.

Lentz said that as of this week, Exponent now reports to Stephen St. Angelo, the newly appointed head of the company's North American Quality Task Force. But that change seemed more than a little suspect, coming as it did on the eve of Lentz's second appearance before Congress

Government Brings in NASA Engineers to Investigate

Further, citing documents obtained from Toyota and Exponent, House committee members revealed that the Japanese automaker has paid Exponent about $3.3 million for some 1,100 hours of work. Yet Exponent has maintained no written records of the work it has done for Toyota, another suspicious detail that suggests the company is more concerned about legal problems than consumer safety.

For his part, Lentz said St. Angelo would demand that Exponent produce a final report when it finishes its investigation -- whenever that is. Though hired in December, there is no firm date for when Exponent will produce such a report, Lentz said.

Meanwhile, David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who also testified Thursday, said a joint report prepared by the NHTSA and NASA engineers, will be available by the end of August. The National Academy of Sciences is also looking into whether electronics could indeed be the source of unintended acceleration.

Lentz last testified before the committee in February, about a month after Toyota initiated the massive recalls of cars for unintended acceleration. Toyota officials, including CEO Akio Toyoda, were criticized for failing to act more quickly in recalling the cars, leading Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to call Toyoda "safety deaf."

Last month, NHTSA fined the automaker a record $16.4 million for failing to act more quickly in recalling the 2.3 million cars with sticky pedals. Toyota has since moved more speedily in announcing recalls. For example, the company said Wednesday it expects to announce Friday the recall of 3,800 2010 Lexus LS luxury sedans in the U.S. for steering problems. The automaker says the models involved include the LS 460, LS 460L and LS 600h L.
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