On Capitol Hill Thursday morning, House Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., said he was "baffled" by assurances from Toyota that electronics were not the cause of sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles.
"There is no evidence," said Waxman during opening remarks at a committee hearing, "that Toyota has conducted extensive or rigorous testing of its vehicles for potential electronic defects that could cause sudden unintended acceleration."
Waxman said that the committee's investigation since its last hearing on Toyota in February had revealed two flaws with the research conducted by the carmaker and the engineering firm it had hired. According to Waxman, research conducted by company engineers in Japan was performed on prototype vehicles, not cars manufactured for the market, and research done by Exponent, Toyota's engineering firm, was conducted in response to lawsuits, and did not include a comprehensive look into potential causes of unintended acceleration.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D.-Mich, chair of the committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, echoed Rep. Waxman's claim that Toyota had not conducted extensive testing, and also charged that the automaker had emphasized damage control instead of scientific research.
"What's disappointing to me," said Stupak, "is learning that Toyota seems to have focused more on discrediting its critics than on solving the problem." Stupak cited a poll conducted by Toyota, and a press conference held by Toyota to discredit the work of Dr. Dave Gilbert, a committee witness. When Dr. Gilbert testifed before the committee in February, he explained that he had found a way to induce an electrical short and cause sudden unintended acceleration in a Toyota vehicle without triggering an error code in the vehicle's computer.
"The Exponent report on Dr. Gilbert's research was a hit job, not solid science," said Stupak. "Independent experts have defended Dr. Gilbert's approach."
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief David Strickland told the committee that Gilbert will travel to a government test facility in Ohio within the next two weeks to go over his findings with NHTSA and NASA engineers. "We have to take his work very seriously," said Strickland. Strickland also criticized Toyota's arrangement with Exponent, saying "all the work has been in preparation for litigation, but it is not a scientific analysis." Strickland added that Toyota's pre-market testing of its electronic throttle control was not enough to prove the system was fool-proof in real world conditions. "I don't think that NHTSA would say that a pre-market test validates a long-term answer of impossibility of there being a failure," said Strickland.
Toyota executive Jim Lentz testified that the company does not believe that sudden unintended acceleration incidents are caused by electronic throttle flaws. "Toyota remains confident that our electronic throttle control system is not a cause of unintended acceleration," said Lentz. "Toyota and Lexus vehicles are inherently designed so that a real world uncommanded acceleration of the vehicle cannot occur."
Lentz asserted that the throttle has been subjected to comprehensive testing for more than a decade "without a single unintended acceleration event," and said that the outside firm Exponent has conducted 11,000 hours of testing of the throttle. "Its comprehensive evaluation is ongoing."
Waxman submitted documents showing that the contract between Toyota and Exponent is for "engineering consulting services related to class actions filed against Toyota." "Nowhere in this document," said Waxman, "do Toyota's lawyers ask Exponent to conduct a 'comprehensive' examination of sudden unintended acceleration."
Waxman also said that when the Committee interviewed Dr. Shukri Souhi, the Exponent engineer overseeing work for Toyota, "what we learned was astonishing." According to Waxman, Exponent has no written timeline, workplan or specifications for testing.
"We asked Dr. Souri what could explain this remarkable lack of documentation," said Waxman. "He explained that writing down what Exponent does would 'limit the creativity' of the engineers working on the project."
Waxman called this reputed claim "preposterous," and said a former Exponent engineer consulted by the Committee suggested the reason Exponent "doesn't write anything down is to avoid creating documents that might have to be produced in lawsuits."
While defending Exponent's credentials, Lentz noted that just this week his company decided that Exponent will no longer report to Toyota's product liability attorneys. According to Lentz, Exponent will report directly to Toyota's quality officer in North America, Steve St. Angelo.
NHTSA chief Strickland testified at the hearing that NHTSA had not yet decided whether to levy a civil penalty against Toyota because of the timing of its recall of vehicles with "sticky" gas pedals. Strickland also said that so far NHTSA has not seen any evidence of electronic throttle problems that could account for incidents of sudden acceleration.