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Toyota accused of putting its own defense ahead of safety

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Toyota accused of putting its own defense ahead of safety

Neil Roland

Automotive News -- May 20, 2010 - 12:26 pm ET

UPDATED: 5/20/10 2:42 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON -- Toyota Motor Corp. has failed to conduct impartial investigations of possible electronic defects in its vehicles because it is more interested in defending against lawsuits than in identifying the causes of unintended acceleration, a senior lawmaker said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said today that the findings of a staff inquiry undermine repeated assertions by Toyota executives that their tests show no electronic links to speed-control difficulties.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President James Lentz disputed the congressional findings. “Toyota remains confident that our electronic throttle-control system is not a cause of unintended acceleration,” he said. “We test our vehicles extensively to make sure that the fail safes and redundancies work.”

Waxman, D-Calif., said tests for electronic defects by the Exponent consulting firm hired by Toyota are controlled by the automaker's trial lawyers.

The December contract between Toyota and Exponent makes clear that the firm's research is intended to assist the automaker in defending against class action suits, the lawmaker said.

“Toyota's lawyers appear to be involved in every aspect of Exponent's work, and the lawyers have the right to approve publication of all of Exponent's work,” Waxman said. “There is no evidence that Toyota has conducted extensive or rigorous testing of its vehicles for potential electronic defects that could cause sudden unintended acceleration.”

No written plan

Committee investigators' interview of Exponent senior engineer Shukri Souri showed that the firm has no written work plan for the study, no written time line, and no written specifications for the experiments, Waxman said.

Another Exponent engineer consulted by the committee said the firm doesn't write anything down to avoid creating documents that might have to be produced in lawsuits, Waxman said.

This unnamed engineer called this “absolutely bad practice” as a matter of science, according to the lawmaker.

Waxman also criticized Toyota's own testing of its vehicles for possible electronic defects.

He said the company's internal testing is limited to premarket engineering reviews done during the design phase of vehicle production, with no studies of defects reported after manufacturing is complete.

The Toyota studies are done on prototypes rather than actual vehicles, and the sample size is small, sometimes limited to a single vehicle, the lawmaker said.

The House committee's staff has interviewed Toyota and Exponent engineers, and reviewed more than 100,000 pages of documents from Toyota and federal regulators, Waxman said.

Exponent has been paid $3.3 million by Toyota for the 11,000 hours of electronics research since December, said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, citing internal Toyota documents.

The consultants have been paid another $11 million by Toyota since 1990, he said.

Toyota's case

Toyota executives, including President Akio Toyoda, have repeatedly told Congress that unintended acceleration problems that have led to worldwide recalls of more than 8 million vehicles were not caused by faulty electronic sensors.

The executives have attributed the problems to floor mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals.

Lentz repeated this stance today.

He added that Steve St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality officer for North America, wrote a letter this week to Exponent.

The letter said, according to Lentz: “As is already the case, Toyota will not limit the scope or budget of Exponent's evaluation. Toyota remains committed to the proposition that Exponent be allowed to conduct its own independent analysis.”

St. Angelo added in the letter that Toyota intends to publish Exponent's findings whatever the conclusions, Lentz said. No date was given for completion of the study.

Exponent has already completed 11,000 hours of testing of Toyota's electronic throttle control system, he said.

Lentz acknowledged that Exponent has been reporting to Toyota's product-liability attorneys. He said, though, that starting this week, Exponent will report to St. Angelo.

"He is going to demand we have a work process with Exponent going forward," Lentz said.

Reports of 52 deaths

Federal regulators are investigating reports of 52 deaths due to speed-control problems in Toyota since the automaker introduced electronic throttle-control systems in 2002 model vehicles.

Republican lawmakers criticized Waxman and other Democrats on the panel for convening a hearing before Exponent has completed its testing.

“It's easy to sit on the podium to point fingers and demand results and act as if we know what the answers are,” said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee. “That not how life is and how engineering is.”

link:

http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100520/OEM/100529991/1192

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Rep. Stupak: Toyota focused on critics, not finding answers

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- Toyota Motor Corp. focused on discrediting critics, rather than figuring out what was causing sudden acceleration problems, a Michigan congressman charged today.

Congressional leaders also charged that Toyota hasn't done any real investigation of whether electronic issues are to blame for sudden acceleration concerns and said an outside investigation wasn't thorough.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel, accused Toyota of performing "damage control" rather than focusing on finding answers to the problems behind its recall of more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide for sudden acceleration concerns.

"Toyota appears to have been more interested in messaging than scientific inquiry," Stupak said at today's start of another congressional hearing on Toyota's recall woes.

The committee has learned that an outside firm hired by Toyota, Benenson Strategy Group, commissioned a poll to learn more "about what Toyota could do to repair damage to the company's image among educated consumers known as 'opinion elites.' "

Toyota said in a statement that it was responding to citizens "that created unwarranted consumer concern."

"Toyota, like most organizations, conducts regular public opinion research," Toyota said. "Messages were being tested for a potential advertising campaign to address public concerns, but ultimately were not used."

Toyota Motor Sales USA chief Jim Lentz said today that the company has repaired 3.5 million vehicles. He said 70 percent of the 2.3 million vehicles recalled for sticky pedal concerns have been fixed.

"We are making a major scientific effort to further validate the safety of our vehicles by opening up our technology to an unprecedented level of independent review," Lentz said.

But Lentz came under heavy criticism today for failing to retrofit all Toyota models on the roads with brake override. Toyota has previously announced it will make brake override standard on all new vehicles by next year. The software allows a driver to override an open throttle by applying the brakes.

Lentz said it would take too much time to develop the software on all existing vehicles. Previously, Toyota said it was technically infeasible to install the system on all vehicles.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told the committee that none of the Toyota vehicles repaired for sticky pedal concerns or entrapped floor mats have needed to be re-repaired. NHTSA has spoken to nearly 100 consumers about their recalled vehicles and has inspected repaired vehicles.

"We will go wherever the evidence leads us to address the root cause of this phenomenon, including additional investigations and recalls if necessary," Strickland said. "We will push for recalls where warranted."

Stupak said Toyota "engaged in damage control almost immediately following (an earlier) hearing by continually asserting confidence that extensive testing proves the safety of the electronics systems and attacking those who disagree with them."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said "there is no evidence that Toyota has done extensive or rigorous testing of its vehicles for potential electronic defects that could cause sudden acceleration."

Waxman called the disclosure "deeply troubling."

The committee has met with Toyota engineers in Japan and taken depositions from them, along with a senior U.S. employee.

Toyota's outside engineering firm, Exponent, hired to review the automaker's Toyota electronic throttle control systems, came under sharp criticism.

Exponent has no written work plan, no written time line and no written specifications for what Toyota asked it to test.

Shukri Souri, the Exponent engineer who oversaw the Toyota testing, said writing down what Exponent does would "limit the creativity" of the engineers working on the project, Waxman said.

"That's preposterous," Waxman said. He said a former Exponent engineer told the committee the only reason Exponent doesn't write things down is to avoid creating documents that have to be produced in lawsuits.

Toyota's lawyers are heavily involved in the Exponent investigation, Waxman said.

"The public has a right to expect that Toyota will do everything possible to find any potential defects," Waxman said. "Toyota didn't do that. Instead, Toyota asked its defense counsel to hire a firm whose missions appear to be the exact opposite: to obfuscate and to find no problems."

Lentz said that starting this week the lawyers no longer are overseeing the Exponent investigation.

He also said Toyota's testing before production was lacking.

"The results of our investigation raise serious questions. Toyota has repeatedly told the public that it has conducted extensive testing of its vehicles for electronic defects," Waxman said. "We can find no basis for these assertions. Toyota's assertions may be good public relations, but they don't appear to be true."

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the ranking members of the committee, said people have "lost confidence" in Toyota vehicles.

link:

http://detnews.com/article/20100520/AUTO01/5200469/1148/auto01/Rep.-Stupak--Toyota-focused-on-critics--not-finding-answers

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Toyota's priorities come under fire

In contentious hearing, automaker accused of putting spin control before action

David Shepardson / The Detroit News

Washington -- Toyota Motor Corp. has put more effort into containing the damage to its reputation than checking all the possible causes of unintended acceleration, a Michigan congressman said Thursday during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers also charged that Toyota was trying to discredit critics and hadn't thoroughly investigated whether its electronic systems might be defective.

The Japanese automaker, struggling with the biggest crisis in its recent history, maintains that it has not discovered any electronic cause for the incidents of unintended acceleration that led to its largest U.S. recall.

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Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel, accused Toyota of focusing more on "damage control" than on searching for defects. Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including more than 6 million in the United States.

"Toyota appears to have been more interested in messaging than scientific inquiry," he said.

Committee staffers said Toyota had hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a poll about "what Toyota could do to repair damage to the company's image among educated consumers known as 'opinion elites.' "

Toyota, "like most organizations, conducts regular public opinion research," the company said in a statement.

"We are making a major scientific effort to further validate the safety of our vehicles by opening up our technology to an unprecedented level of independent review," Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, told the committee.

Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said there was "no evidence that Toyota has done extensive or rigorous testing of its vehicles for potential electronic defects that could cause sudden acceleration."

The committee has met with Toyota engineers in Japan and taken their depositions and one from a senior U.S. employee.

An engineering firm Toyota hired in February to examine its electronic systems, Menlo, Calif.-based Exponent, also came under fire at the hearing for lacking a written plan or description of what it was asked to test.

Waxman said a former Exponent engineer told the committee that Exponent staffers weren't writing things down to avoid creating documents that would have to be produced in lawsuits.

He said Shukri Souri, the Exponent engineer who oversaw the tests on Toyota vehicles, had said that writing down what Exponent does would "limit the creativity" of the engineers working on the project. "That's preposterous," Waxman said.

Among the measures Toyota has taken in recent months, the company has established a panel of high-level, North American safety and business experts to advise it. The group will travel to Japan next week to meet the automaker's top leaders, Toyota said.

The panel is reviewing Toyota's business practices and internal communications, as well as the investigations of potential flaws in its electronic throttle control or other electronic systems.

"Our panel includes highly respected safety, quality and engineering experts who are thoroughly exploring Exponent's findings, and we are seeking further study by other independent experts," said Rodney Slater, a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, who leads the North American Quality Advisory Panel formed three weeks ago.

Toyota also came under criticism for failing to retrofit all existing vehicles with a failsafe electronic brake override system. Toyota is retrofitting many models, but has said it would be difficult on some models. Lentz said it would take too much time to develop the software on all vehicles.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100521/AUTO01/5210350/1148/auto01/Toyota-s-priorities-come-under-fire#ixzz0oZFZvlO0

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