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Waxman: Documents show Toyota dismissed electronics in runaway acceleration cases, misled public about fixes

UPDATED at 3:25 p.m. with NHTSA response:

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) just gave Toyota and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood a glimpse of what their day is going to be like tomorrow on Capitol Hill when they testify before one of Waxman's subcommittees: tough. Real tough.

In a letter to Toyota North America sales head Jim Lentz and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, obtained by The Post's Peter Whoriskey, Waxman writes:

"First, the documents appear to show that Toyota consistently dismissed the possibility that electronic failures could be responsible for incidents of sudden unintended acceleration. Second, the one report that Toyota has produced that purports to test and analyze potential electronic causes of sudden unintended acceleration was initiated just two months ago and appears to have serious flaws. Third, Toyota’s public statements about the adequacy of its recent recalls appear to be misleading."

Translation: We think Toyota should have looked at electronics, and didn't. We think Toyota's testing of its thesis is bogus. We think Toyota might be lying when it says the recall fixes are working.

Wow.

In Waxman's letter to Lentz, which you can read by clicking here, Waxman lays out a number of instances from Toyota internal documents -- obtained via subpoena -- in which Toyota personnel repeatedly told drivers that what they experienced -- runaway acceleration -- did not happen and could not happen:

A November 9, 2006, letter from Carole Hargrave of Toyota Motor Sales to a 2005 Toyota Tacoma driver states: "It is our understanding that you reported that you applied the gas pedal when it stuck, you then applied the brake but the vehicle kept going and hit four parked cars. Your vehicle was inspected by one of our field technicians in regards to your concerns. The throttle was inspected and moved freely without any binding and was found to operate as designed. The brakes will always override the accelerator. In order for this accident to happen as reported two totally separate systems, the brakes and throttle, would have to fail at exactly the same time. This is virtually impossible."

Waxman keeps some powder dry for LaHood's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, charged with regulating the safety of Toyotas, telling the agency that it is not equipped to determine whether Toyotas are safe or not:

"Sudden unintended acceleration in vehicles is a serious and highly dangerous event. Our preliminary assessment is that NHTSA has lacked the expertise needed to address this serious defect and has conducted only cursory and ineffective investigations."

NHTSA responds, via spokeswoman Olivia Alair:

“NHTSA has numerous engineers on staff with experience with electrical engineering and ETC issues, and also consults with outside experts whenever necessary. Since 1980, NHTSA has conducted 141 investigations related to throttle control issues. NHTSA is once again undertaking a comprehensive review of sudden acceleration, including the possible influence of electromagnetic interference, software anomalies or other electronic issues.”

The hearing is set to begin Tuesday at 11 a.m. I'll be live-blogging and tweeting it, so make sure you tune in. Looks like the committee is loaded for bear, as we say back in West Virginia.

Follow me on Twitter at @theticker

By Frank Ahrens  |  February 22, 2010; 3:25 PM ET
Categories:  Congress , Corporations , The Ticker  | Tags: Henry Waxman, Toyota recall update, toyota, toyota recall model and years, unintended acceleration  
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Comments

There's only thing more predictable than profit trumping safety when highly compensated executives make decisions: that Congress will show righteous indignation in front of the tv cameras when it all comes to light.

Posted by: Will-in-StLouis1 | February 22, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

For something like this, I believe that on the space shuttle there is 5x redundancies (5 computers) that determine what actions should be taken, and if one freaks out, the other computers negate that computer. It would be interesting to find out what level, if any, of redundancies there are on the Toyotas.

Fly by wire (or in this case) drive by wire is an excellent technology. However, unlike with hydraulic and mechanical linkages in the past, require certain redundancies should the chip controlling the system freeze up, burn out, suffer CMOS latch-up, etc.

Posted by: A1965bigdog | February 22, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Am I the only one who wonders how the truth or falsehood of a technical question can be decided by pundits, politicians, and public relations?

There seem to be three theories as to what caused the reported instances of spontaneous acceleration: 1) Defective floor mats; 2) defective pedals; 3) defective electronics or programming (the various critics, including Waxman, don't seem to distinguish between hardware and software defects).

Given that Toyota has been manufacturing cars for more than half a century and that the automotive industry is highly competitive, it seems unlikely that all three of these theories could be valid. If Toyota's cars were really that shabby, wouldn't someone have noticed long ago?

The only solid, undeniable fact that I encountered was that there have been some 2600 such reports in the past ten years, out of a total of 20 million vehicles sold by Toyota in that period. Assuming that these complaints are legitimate (a big assumption, giving the tendency of wannabe litigants to hop aboard a tort bandwagon), that's a defect rate of slightly more than one in ten thousand. Do you know any other product of any sort, let alone one as complicated as an automobile, with that low a defect rate?

You probably remember the "tampering" scare. Someone put cyanide in capsules of Tylenol, a non-prescription medication, sold in Chicago. Seven people died of poisoning. After this was reported panic ensued. The product was withdrawn from sale. Laws were passed mandating tamper-proof containers. Reports of similar tampering came in from all over the country. What is remembered less well is that NONE of those subsequent reports were borne out.

Am I the only one who thinks there may be less here than meets the eye?

Posted by: donnolo | February 22, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

donnolo posted

The only solid, undeniable fact that I encountered was that there have been some 2600 such reports in the past ten years, out of a total of 20 million vehicles sold by Toyota in that period. Assuming that these complaints are legitimate (a big assumption, giving the tendency of wannabe litigants to hop aboard a tort bandwagon), that's a defect rate of slightly more than one in ten thousand. Do you know any other product of any sort, let alone one as complicated as an automobile, with that low a defect rate?

------------

Not all defects are equivalent. Paint peeling or transmissions failing don't kill you. This defect can and does kill. One out of 10,000 is not acceptable for something that can kill you without warning.

Posted by: pessimist46 | February 22, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Dear Pessimist:

Last year 36,000 Americans died in highway accidents -- roughly equivalent to one 9/11 attack each month.

And now you want to crucify Toyota's executives for a problem that may not even be real? Give me a break.

Posted by: donnolo | February 22, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

"If Toyota's cars were really that shabby, wouldn't someone have noticed long ago?"

State Farm Insurance started complaining to the NHTSA about Toyotas in 2004.

Posted by: frantaylor | February 22, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

frantaylor: "State Farm Insurance started complaining to the NHTSA about Toyotas in 2004."

How many complaints? How many accidents? Remember, there were millions of Toyotas on the road.

Do you run to the basement to hide every time there's a thunderstorm? Do you live in fear of earthquakes, tidal waves, or asteroid strikes? Of course you don't, because you know the risk is minuscule. Politicians can say that "even one preventable death is too many." But hundreds of thousands of Americans die of preventable cause (everything from smoking to car accidents to handgun violence) every year. Toyotas are not a major cause of preventable death.

Get real.

Posted by: donnolo | February 22, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

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