Top Toyota executive says company hasn’t ruled out electronics problem


WASHINGTON — Under relentless questioning from a congressional panel, a top Toyota
executive said Tuesday that the automaker hadn’t ruled out electronics
as a potential cause of sudden acceleration, and conceded that fixing
floor mats and sticking gas pedals would “not totally” solve the

James E. Lentz, Toyota’s
top U.S. sales executive, also apologized for a series of missteps that
allowed the sudden acceleration problem to go unchecked for years,
ultimately leading Toyota to issue nearly 10 million recall notices and temporarily halt sales of eight models.

Lentz blamed the company’s rapid growth in recent
years, and acknowledged that it suffered from poor communications, both
within its ranks as well as with its customers.

He repeated Toyota’s
assertion that floor mats and sticky gas pedals were behind the sudden
acceleration problem. But he also held out the potential for other
causes, the first time a Toyota executive has publicly done so.

Sudden acceleration, he said, “has many, many
causes,” adding that transmission software problems, faulty cruise
control and even engine revs caused by engaging the air conditioner
could trigger sudden acceleration events.

His testimony came in the first of three congressional hearings called to investigate how Toyota and federal safety officials handled the sudden acceleration problem. Other Toyota officials, including President Akio Toyoda, are scheduled to appear Wednesday and early next week.

Lentz told the committee that the automaker planned
to install an electronic program that allows the brake to override the
throttle on a larger number of its vehicles than previously announced,
but stopped short of promising to install it on all the millions of
Toyotas already on the road.

Asked what solace he could offer Toyota owners who will not get the new safeguard, he said the “probability is slim” that they would have problems.

Later in the day, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that federal regulators would “look into” requiring all vehicles to have a brake override.

LaHood was asked whether regulators moved quickly and effectively to address the complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif.,
chairman of the committee, told LaHood there needs to be “fundamental
reform” of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is
overseen by the Transportation Department.

“We may be coming to you and asking you for some legislative remedies,” LaHood responded.

Overall, LaHood defended his agency’s handling of
the sudden acceleration problem but acknowledged that his investigators
had trouble getting Toyota to release information from its “black box” data recorders on vehicles.

Under questioning, he also confirmed that NHTSA has
just two electrical engineers on staff, out of 125 engineers total, but
that they were “about to add another one.” Waxman and others contend
that NHTSA is not equipped to regulate cars that increasingly are
governed by electronic components.

Indeed, the role of electronics was the recurrent
theme at Tuesday’s hearing. With dozens of reporters and television
cameras present, members of the congressional committee pressed Lentz
repeatedly on the potential for sudden acceleration to be caused by
malfunctions in its electronic throttle system.

“You have been evasive,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. “What is your apology based on? Is this a problem from an engineering standpoint that you take responsibility for?”

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who accused the company of “trying to sweep everything under the rug.”

Lentz, who said that while he is in charge of sales
and marketing, he has no direct control over safety and quality issues,
at times appeared shaken by the line of questioning. At one point, he
choked up as he mentioned that his brother had died in a car accident
30 years ago. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think of
him,” he said.

Earlier in the all-day hearing, several witnesses testified that Toyota vehicles did appear to have an electronics related problem.

David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, claimed he had been able to “defeat” a key part of the safety system built into the electronic throttle control system on Toyota vehicles in just three and a half hours. “The initial findings question the integrity and consistency of” Toyota’s throttle system, he said.

That work was commissioned by Sean Kane, president of an auto safety consulting firm and also a witness at the hearing, for $1,800, plus $150 per hour for future study, the committee learned.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., stating that Toyota
had a joint-venture assembly plant in his state, questioned the
validity of the study, because he claimed it was paid for, indirectly,
by plaintiff lawyers that are suing Toyota.

Kane said he did receive money from such lawyers for
his work, but said that did not impact the study. “I am uncomfortable
with your advocacy and I just want you to know that,” Buyer said.

In turn, other lawmakers questioned the financial underpinnings of a study commissioned by Toyota from a California engineering firm, Exponent Inc. A preliminary Exponent report, released this month, indicated no problems with Toyota’s electronics, although Lentz conceded that it had not yet reviewed the software controlling the throttle system.

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, noted that Exponent had been hired by a law firm, Bowman and Brooke, that usually represents Toyota
in product liability suits and that Exponent received tens of millions
of dollars per year in fees from the auto industry in general.

“How much has Toyota paid Exponent?” he asked Lentz, who replied that he did not know but confirmed that Toyota had worked with Exponent in the past.

The most emotional testimony of the day came from Rhonda Smith, a Tennessee woman who experienced what she termed a terrifying bout of unintended acceleration in a 2006 Lexus ES four years ago.

Sobbing openly, Smith described reaching speeds of
90 mph without her feet on the pedal and finding the brakes and
shifting into neutral to be ineffective in stopping the car. She said
the cause was definitely not floor mats, yet described being made to
feel like a liar by Toyota employees that claimed the Lexus was in working order.

“Shame on Toyota
for being so greedy,” Smith said, also pointing her finger at the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not doing something
about sudden acceleration earlier. “Shame on NHTSA for not doing their
job,” she added.

For its part, Toyota
plans to launche a “swat team” of specialists who would investigate
vehicles with safety troubles within 24 hours and would create at least
two new committees to upgrade the ability of the company to address
safety problems in the U.S., moving away from the tight control
exercised by its Japan headquarters until now, Lentz said.

Whether that will be effective remains to be seen. On Sunday, congressional investigators released a Toyota document that showed employees boasting they had saved at least $100 million by negotiating a floor mat recall in a 2007 NHTSA investigation of sudden acceleration.

“It’s unacceptable when companies pay more attention to their costs than the safety of their customers,” said Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio. “Consumers deserve better.”

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