Toyota’s priorities come under fire

May 21, 2010

Toyota’s priorities come under fire

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

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.

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.

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