Lawmakers question motives behind Toyota's independent probe

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

Toyota's investigation into the causes of unintended acceleration in its vehicles appears to have been aimed less at identifying the root problem than at public relations, congressional investigators said Thursday.

Earlier in the year, Toyota assured worried customers and Congress that it was conducting an independent investigation into reports of sudden acceleration, which has been linked to as many as 52 deaths. But on Thursday, the congressional investigators said the company that Toyota has hired to do the review, Exponent, had offered no written plan for the project or any written specifications for the experiments it intends to run.

Moreover, the company was hired for the investigation not by Toyota but by a law firm hired to represent the company in class-action lawsuits, lawmakers said.

"What we have learned is deeply troubling," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a committee investigating Toyota, said at a hearing Thursday morning. "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."

Waxman said that congressional investigators asked the Exponent engineer overseeing the work to explain the lack of documentation.

"He explained that writing down what Exponent does would 'limit the creativity' of the engineers working on the project," Waxman said. "That's preposterous."

In response, Toyota officials said the company last week presented the congressional committee with a 64-page document outlining the research it is doing on Toyota's electronics.

The company's U.S. chief, James E. Lentz, testified in addition that Exponent has completed 11,000 hours of research on the topic.

The company and its dealers have also tested 2,000 cars cited in unintended acceleration reports, he said.

"Significantly, none of these investigations have found that our electronic throttle control system with intelligence was the cause," Lentz said.

Lentz also said the company has completed the previously announced fixes on millions of recalled vehicles: More than 70 percent of the 2.3 million vehicles recalled for sticking pedals have been repaired, he said, and about 30 percent of the 5.4 million vehicles that were recalled for floor mat entrapment have been fixed.

Last week, documents emerged that Toyota officials sought to develop a public relations campaign to attack the credibility of key witnesses who have testified before Congress about acceleration problems with the company's cars.

"Unfortunately, Toyota appears to have been more interested in messaging than scientific inquiry," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said.

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