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Akio Toyoda to defend his company’s name

Rolling on: Toyota's quality issues for cars such as the Prius will be put under the microscope by a US congressional hearing this week.

Toyota rules out electronics in unintended acceleration problems

Toyota logo23 Feb 2010

By MARTON PETTENDY

TOYOTA has attempted to dismiss the possibility that electronic throttle systems could be involved in unintended acceleration complaints on the eve of a landmark United States government hearing into the Japanese giant’s unprecedented quality crisis.

“There is no evidence, nor any sign, that electronic throttle control systems have been involved,” said Toyota spokesman John Hanson on Monday, two days before Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda was due to publicly defend the company that bears his name.

Toyota engineers used a 90-minute conference call to explain how “fail-safe” systems prevented vehicles accelerating without driver input and to prove that Toyota’s internal electromagnetic interference testing exceeded minimum US and European regulations.

The world’s biggest car-maker continues to maintain that either floor mats or sticky accelerator pedals are the causes of unintended acceleration reports that have led to two recalls affecting about 8.5 million vehicles globally.

So far Australia is affected only by a separate recall of nearly 2400 examples of Toyota’s Prius hybrid. Globally, about 400,000 latest third-generation Priuses are subject to the recall, which involves a brake system fix within the vehicle’s electronic control unit.

Toyota’s Corolla – the world’s top-selling small car – is also the subject of an NHTSA investigation after reports of problems with its electric power steering system, but Toyota has announced that Australia will not be affected by any potential recall of one of the nation’s most popular models because it employs a different steering system to that in US models.

Toyota Motor Sales USA president Jim Lentz and transportation secretary Ray LaHood are due to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee at 11am US time on Tuesday, with Mr Toyoda and his company’s North American chief Yoshi Inaba scheduled to appear 24 hours later at 11am Wednesday.

Even before Toyota is forced to answer embarrassing questions about quality control and alleged cover-ups, however, committee chairman Henry Waxman fired shots at both Toyota and America’s official road safety body.

 center image Left: Toyota Motor Corporation president and CEO Akio Toyoda.

Congressman Waxman, a Californian democrat, said Toyota documents provided to the committee suggest the car-maker had consistently dismissed electronics as a cause of unwanted acceleration, that Toyota's most recent electronic interference test appears flawed and that the company issued misleading statements about the adequacy of its recent recalls.

“Our preliminary assessment is that Toyota resisted the possibility that electronic defects could cause safety concerns, relied on a flawed engineering report and made misleading public statements concerning the adequacy of recent recalls to address the risk of sudden unintended acceleration,” said Mr Waxman in a letter to Mr Lentz, which was co-signed by Michigan Republican Bart Stupak, chairman of the committee's oversight panel.

The committee found that Toyota customer complaint operators identified floor mats or accelerator pedals as the cause of only 16 per cent of the unintended acceleration reports, the letter said.

The damning letter also described as inadequate Toyota’s two most recent safety recalls, since about 70 per cent of acceleration complaints to Toyota involved vehicles not recalled in October or January.

A second letter from Mr Waxman, which also pre-empts questions to be asked over the next two days, criticises the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's handling of consumer complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, and claims the NHTSA lacked the expertise to evaluate defects in electronic systems.

“NHTSA has lacked the expertise needed to address this serious defect and has conducted only cursory and ineffective investigations,” said the letter.

Automotive News reported that US transport department spokeswoman Olivia Alair had confirmed that the US safety regulator was doing another investigation into the matter, including the possibility of electromagnetic interference, following 141 similar throttle control inquests since 1980.

“NHTSA is once again undertaking a comprehensive review of sudden acceleration, including the possible influence of electromagnetic interference, software anomalies or other electronic issues,” she said, adding that the agency has “numerous” electrical engineers on staff and consults with outside experts when necessary.

The latest developments follow the reveal of a document claiming TMC saved more than $US100 million ($A111.3m) by convincing the US regulator to agree to a relatively inexpensive fix for unintended acceleration problems, just as Toyota’s most senior officials arrived in Washington to face the federal hearings this week.

Provided to the government before being made available on Sunday, the internal 2009 document by Toyota’s Washington staff highlights the savings achieved by persuading safety officials to end a 2007 investigation into unintended acceleration by issuing a floor mat recall.

“Unfortunately, this document is very telling,” said Ms Alair in an emailed statement to Automotive News, alluding to the likelihood of more pivotal debate about whether Toyota overlooked or ignored reports of sudden acceleration complaints in its vehicles and whether US safety regulators were too lenient with Toyota.

The NHTSA commenced seven investigations into sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles between 2003 and early 2009, five of which were closed after it was concluded there was no evidence for any action.

According to Automotive News, more than 100 Toyota dealers, who are influential with US Congress because of their impact on local economies, had gathered for the commencement of hearings on Monday. Consumer advocate and former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook will also appear at hearings on Wednesday's.

Toyota has committed to an unprecedented comprehensive safety review at all levels of its operations, and last week said it would fit an automatic throttle override feature to its vehicles, which like many similar systems returns the engine to idle when the brakes are applied.

While president Toyoda will face the toughest test of his seven-month tenure when he testifies this week in an attempt to contain the safety crisis that puts in jeopardy the reputation and sales of the car-maker in the market that helped make it so successful, Toyota’s US sales plunged 16 per cent in January and the company estimates the recalls will cost $US2 billion ($A2.2b) at an operating level in its fiscal year ending in March.

Potentially representing billions more in lost revenue, Alabama law firm Beasley Allen recently filed its third class action lawsuit against Toyota – its third this month – this time on behalf of more 500,000 Toyota Prius and Lexus hybrid owners.

The latest class action charges Toyota with “breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of implied warranty of fitness for particular purpose, fraudulent concealment, unjust enrichment, and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The complaint alleges Toyota concealed facts relating to the defects in the accelerator braking system”.

As part of its media offensive this week, Toyota suggested it had been singled out by virtue of the sheer volume of vehicles it sells, with Edmunds.com asserting that on a per-vehicle-sold basis Toyota is among the best brands when it comes to all types of complaints since 2001. In contrast, Consumer Reports says Toyota has received the most complaints related to unintended-acceleration.

Toyota also said just 13 sticky throttle pedal complaints led to 2.3 million-vehicle recall. Critics counter by identifying a total of 2262 unintended acceleration complaints since 1999, leading to a federally cited figure of 34 deaths.

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