May 20, 2010 / 3:42 PM / 10 years ago

Toyota effort criticized by House panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats sharply criticized efforts by Toyota Motor Corp to investigate whether faulty electronics are linked to unintended acceleration incidents in its vehicles.

A man is reflected on a Toyota Motor logo at the company showroom in Nagoya, central Japan, May 10, 2010. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Henry Waxman, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, led an aggressive critique of Toyota and its engineering consultant, Exponent Inc, at a hearing centered on Toyota’s assertion that its software-driven throttle systems are sound.

Waxman and other lawmakers said Exponent has not produced sufficient documents to congressional investigators to support Toyota’s contention, and the submitted material does not fully answer basic questions.

“The results of our examination raise serious questions,” Waxman said. “Toyota has repeatedly told the public it has conducted extensive testing for electronic defects. We can find no basis for these assertions.”

Jim Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. sales president, testified that Exponent has completed more than 11,000 hours of testing and analysis of electronic throttles, and that separate tests also have found no problems.

“They are testing everything that could possibly create unintended acceleration,” Lentz said, adding that Toyota has never discovered or otherwise found any evidence that electronics are at the center of the problem.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide, most in the United States, since last October for mechanical and equipment problems linked to sudden acceleration.

U.S. authorities have received complaints that dozens of crash deaths are linked to the problem, so far blamed on an accelerator flaw and loose floor mats that jam the gas pedal.

On Tuesday, Toyota paid a $16.4 million fine to settle allegations by U.S. regulators that the company had been slow to act on one of the recalls.

A copy of a draft Exponent report submitted to the committee this week, and obtained by Reuters, detailed throttle tests on seven Toyota and Lexus models. Accelerator pedals and other components underwent “intense” electromagnetic examination, the report said.

Lentz added that a quality control panel enlisted by Toyota in response to the crisis, and led by former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, is initiating its own electronic analysis and a “rigorous peer review” of Exponent’s work.

Toyota said in a letter to the committee that Exponent would now be retained by the automaker and report to its new North American quality control director, Steve St. Angelo. Exponent, to the dismay of Waxman, had been hired for Toyota by an outside law firm involved in its liability cases.

David Strickland, the top U.S. auto safety regulator as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told the hearing that Toyota’s remedies for the recall appear to be working, despite some consumer complaints suggesting otherwise.

He also said that an agency-led investigation of Toyota electronics is moving forward with the help of space agency experts from NASA and the Justice Department, work that will be subject to scientific peer review in coming months.

Key Republicans on the Energy and Commerce panel believe the question of Toyota electronic throttles should be examined, but said the investigation will take time.

Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn said the conclusion of committee Democrats seemed premature and said some of her constituents in Tennessee were concerned that members were grandstanding in an “attempt to vilify a corporation.”

Reporting by John Crawley, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn

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