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Toyota misled public about probes, Democrats charge

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Toyota misled public about probes, Democrats charge

Automaker says it will release whatever it finds

BY JUSTIN HYDE

FREE PRESS WASHINGTON STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Democratic lawmakers accused Toyota on Thursday of misleading the public about its probes into sudden acceleration, saying the automaker and its outside engineering firm were worried more about lawsuits and publicity than finding a cause.

In response, Toyota maintained that it was running an open probe into thousands of sudden acceleration complaints and vowed to release the results regardless of what they found. It also said it had fixed 3.5 million vehicles so far.

A House subcommittee headed by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak was following up on Toyota's recall of 5.6 million vehicles in the U.S. for defects that could trigger sudden acceleration, and questions of whether the root cause could be Toyota's vehicle electronics. The company has maintained that its systems have "absolute reliability."

Stupak, a Menominee Democrat, criticized Toyota for its "damage control," saying the automaker's work with California engineering firm Exponent had not produced evidence of a deep look at possible causes of sudden acceleration.

"We don't know whether electronics plays a role in sudden unintended acceleration and Toyota doesn't either," Stupak said.

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said when investigators asked Exponent for copies of its work, the firm replied that it had little to no documents on its Toyota experiments.

"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."

Toyota hired Exponent to review the work of David Gilbert, a professor at Southern Illinois University who was able to simulate a sudden acceleration event in a Toyota without tripping any warning lights in the vehicle.

Toyota U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz told the subcommittee that the automaker remained assured that its electronics were not to blame. He also touted Toyota's move to build brake-override systems into all of its new models by the end of the year.

But under questioning by Waxman, Lentz declined to say the move was a safety measure, saying it was meant to improve "consumer confidence."

"I think for some people it could be safety," Lentz said. "I can't speak for all consumers ... I can't say 100% it's necessarily going to make a car safer."

Stupak also questioned why Toyota wasn't offering brake override on all models with computer-assisted systems. Lentz said such a move would be too great of a technical challenge, requiring re-engineering for dozens of different models.

The automaker has rearranged its U.S. management to create new powers for quality managers and has pledged to publish the results of the Exponent studies regardless of their results.

LINK:

http://www.freep.com/article/20100521/BUSINESS01/5210389/1331/business01/Democrats-Toyota-misled-public-about-its-probes

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