In the first of two days of Congressional hearings yesterday, Jim Lentz, the head of Toyota’s U.S. sales arm, admitted the recent recalls may “not totally” alleviate unintended acceleration complaints in Toyota’s cars. He also pledged that Toyota would continue to examine all possible causes to ensure safety.
Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, asked Lentz whether he believed Toyota’s gigantic twin recalls for floormat interference and sticking accelerator pedals would solve the issue of unintended acceleration.
Lentz said, “There are many issues that can cause that.” He listed air conditioner adjustments of the vehicle’s idle speed, transmission issues, and faulty cruise controls, as well as accelerator pedals. “We need to continue to be vigilant and to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers that we have done a relatively poor job of doing in the past,” he said.
He said in the past, all recall decisions were centralized in Japan, and he had no authority to authorize a recall in the United States.
Going forward, Lentz promised he would be personally involved in a new SWAT team to investigate unintended acceleration events within 24 hours of when they occur.
Consumer Reports has also criticized Toyota for having only a single computer with decoding software to read data from “black box” event data recorders on its cars.
Lentz said in his testimony that he has ordered 100 new decoding computers to arrive in the U.S. by April.
Preceding Lentz’s testimony, the Committee heard testimony from Dr. David Gilbert, who said he could recreate the sudden acceleration problem in Toyotas by creating a short circuit between two throttle control circuits.
According to a letter from Committee leaders to Lentz (pdf), 70 percent of the sudden unintended acceleration events in Toyota's own customer call database involved vehicles that the company hasn’t recalled for the floor mat and “sticky pedal” problems.
Toyota is required to submit Early Warning Data to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to identify trends pointing to potential safety problems before they hurt too many people. Consumer Reports has called on NHTSA to make more of this data available to the public.
Before the hearing yesterday morning, a company hired by Toyota to investigate its electronic throttles said they could duplicate Gilbert’s experiment, but their report to the committee called his methods “manipulative.”
Whether Gilbert’s experiment accurately represents real world conditions under which a car could accelerate without driver input is still subject to debate.
Following Lentz’s testimony, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who’s department oversees NHTSA, promised the Committee that the Agency would be much more aggressive in investigating the causes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas and other automakers. LaHood, a former Representative from Illinois, said the “vast majority” of the Agency’s recalls and investigations involve other automakers, not Toyota. But he also said that opening similar investigations into all those other automakers would be a much more massive task.
Consumer Reports has asked that NHTSA be given more resources to investigate all kinds of safety complaints. In fact, the Obama Administration has asked for an additional $6 billion for NTHSA in the next budget cycle and has budgeted for an additional 66 engineers.
NHTSA has been criticized for not having any electrical engineers to investigate sudden acceleration complaints. In fact, LaHood says the agency has two electrical engineers, out of a total of 125.
Our research confirms that sudden acceleration problems are not unique to Toyota. Almost all manufacturers report such problems, though our analysis of the NHTSA consumer complaints database has shown a disproportionate number of related complaints on Toyota-manufactured vehicles. Consumers Union released policy recommendations this week that would improve the U.S. car-safety net and reduce such safety complaints in all new cars.
Today, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, as well as David Strickland, the new NHTSA Administrator, will face the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform at 11 a.m.—Eric Evarts