A top executive of Toyota sought to defend his company Thursday against criticism that it appears more focused on fighting lawsuits than on fixing so-called "sudden acceleration" in its cars.
Appearing before a skeptical congressional panel, Toyota Motor Sales USA president James Lentz said the automaker is "taking major steps to become a more responsive, safety-focused organization."
But lawmakers on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, reviewing documents from the company, said the firm has gone to extraordinary efforts to rebut critics – while doing too little research on the nature of the problem.
Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D) of California said that a number of fatal accidents "have occurred in vehicles that did not have faulty floor mats or sticky pedals." The Toyota recall-related fixes so far have focused on fixing floor mats and pedals.
The hearing centered on Toyota's efforts to debunk claims that electronic-control systems in the cars may have been at fault. Toyota hired Exponent, a consulting firm, to research the issue. But Representative Waxman and other lawmakers said this effort focused on casting doubt on expert witnesses that plaintiffs may use in court.
"Toyota says that Exponent’s work is 'comprehensive' and 'independent,' but the documents reviewed by the committee do not support these assertions," Waxman said. Rather, he said, an Exponent engineer told the committee that the consulting firm has no written list of the potential causes to be explored, because doing so might "limit the creativity" of the engineers.
Rep. Bruce Braley (D) of Iowa asked Mr. Lentz if he understood the difference between hiring a firm for legal reasons and asking an outside firm to get to the root of the acceleration issue. Lentz did not have a simple answer, but he said Toyota's relationship with Exponent "has evolved."
Lentz cited progress Toyota has made on several fronts:
• The firm has completed 3.5 million "recall remedies" so far on accelerator pedals, floor mats, and antilock brake systems, he said in his prepared testimony.
• The company now has 150 devices available to read information from electronic data recorders in vehicles that had incidents of unintended acceleration.
• Toyota is speedily investigating customer reports of pedal problems, Lentz also said. New response teams led by engineers have completed 600 on-site vehicle inspections, and the company has shared many field reports with Congress.
"Significantly, none of these investigations have found that our Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence, or ETCS-i, was the cause," he said in his written testimony.
That still leaves some incidents unexplained, critics say. Meanwhile, Lentz said, the firm is "well on the way to being the first full-line manufacturer to feature brake-override technology as standard equipment on all our new models sold in the United States."
That technology is designed so that a car will stop if both the brake and accelerator pedal are pushed simultaneously.