Lawmakers examining Toyota's handling of deadly acceleration defects charged on May 20 that the auto giant had not tested for possible electronics faults before assuring its customers there were none.
"Toyota has repeatedly told the public it has conducted extensive testing of its vehicles for electronic defects. We can find no basis for these assertions," Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said as the panel opened a hearing on the issue.
"Toyota's assertions may be good public relations, but they don't appear to be true," said Waxman, who hammered the world number one automaker's handling of an outside probe into the matter by Exponent, a consulting firm.
"The public has a right to expect Toyota that will do everything possible to find any potential electronic defect, but Toyota didn't do that. Instead, Toyota asked its defense counsel to hire a firm whose mission appears to be the exact opposite, to obfuscate and find no problems," he charged.
Toyota has pulled around 10 million vehicles worldwide since late last year for safety issues and has paid a record $16.4 million fine to settle claims it hid gas pedal defects blamed for more than 50 U.S. deaths. The beleaguered auto giant also faces a host of lawsuits over "unintended acceleration" issues that prompted the majority of the recalls.
Toyota's top executives have repeatedly denied in public that the sudden, deadly surges in speed stemmed from flaws in the electronic systems that govern acceleration and braking in modern vehicles.
Instead, the firm has blamed jammed floor mats or "sticky" pedals, or driver error -- and vowed two months ago that it would get to the bottom of charges that electronic flaws were at issue.
An academic expert told the panel in February that he had put together a test that easily found a possible electronic glitch in which the accelerator overrides the brake, leading Toyota to promise a new round of tests.
But Waxman charged that Exponent's investigation was based on a contract to fight possible class action lawsuits and never undertook a "comprehensive" look at sudden unintended acceleration.
The lead engineer on the project told the committee that he had no written notes on his work, while a former Exponent official said the firm does not keep such records to avoid documents that could be used in suits against Toyota, said Waxman.
"The truth is that we don't know whether the electronics plays a role in sudden, unintended acceleration, and Toyota doesn't know either," Democratic Representative Bart Stupak scolded. Stupak accused Toyota of worrying more about discrediting the outside expert, automotive technology professor David Gilbert, that carrying out a careful investigation.
"Exponent added new steps to Dr Gilbert's experiment and mischaracterized others, all in an attempt to make his outcome seem unlikely and to invent flaws in his analysis," he charged.
The U.S. Congress investigation of Toyota's handling of safety defects has drawn fire from some in Japan, who accuse Washington of being overly harsh because the company is headquartered outside the United States. Those criticisms have been echoed by U.S. lawmakers from states where the automaker accounts for thousands of jobs, as well as from critics of U.S. government help for the embattled U.S. car industry.
"Many of our constituents look at these hearings, and they see this as grandstanding, and an attempt to try and vilify a corporation," said Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn.
Republican Representative Michael Burgess said Exponent's investigation was ongoing, while the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had asked NASA scientists to help with its probe into Toyota's electronics.
"The important part is finding the right answer and not rushing to an answer, because otherwise it'll be impossible to identify the right solution. If we don't find the right solution, the cars are not safer, the public is not protected, and Toyota's reputation continues to suffer," said Burgess.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010