WASHINGTON — Toyota never asked its outside consultants to determine the cause behind the sudden acceleration of its vehicles, despite public statements the Japanese car company made to reassure consumers, lawmakers charged on Thursday.
Rep. Henry Waxman, who chairs the House committee investigating Toyota's massive recalls, accused the automaker of asking its lawyers to hire a consulting firm, Exponent Inc., whose mission was "to obfuscate and to find no problems."
"Toyota has repeatedly told the public that it has conducted extensive testing of its vehicles for electronic defects. We can find no basis for these assertions," said Waxman, D-Calif. "Toyota's assertions may be good public relations, but they don't appear to be true."
Toyota has said it has no evidence that electronics are to blame for the sudden acceleration reports, and the problems are mechanical issues addressed by its recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is reviewing complaints of electronic problems in Toyota vehicles.
Waxman said a contract between Toyota's litigation defense counsel and Exponent was for "engineering consulting services related to class actions filed against Toyota." He said it did not ask Exponent to conduct a "comprehensive" examination of sudden unintended acceleration.
Waxman said Exponent had no written work plan for the project and the firm's top engineer told them he takes no written notes on Exponent's work. The lawmaker said a former Exponent engineer told the committee that "the reason Exponent doesn't write anything down is to avoid creating documents that might have to be produced in lawsuits."
The world's largest automaker has paid a record $16.4 million fine for a slow response to an accelerator pedal recall and faces hundreds of state and federal lawsuits. The Transportation Department could assess more penalties if it finds evidence the company delayed other recalls.
Toyota's safety concerns have led to the first major review of U.S. auto safety laws in Congress since the large tire recalls by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. in 2000.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the investigation was ongoing and the committee's findings were premature. Blackburn said some of her constituents were concerned Congress was "attempting to vilify a corporation" and "score cheap political points" instead of trying to fix the problems.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., planned to tell lawmakers that the company "remains confident" that electronics did not cause the problems. Exponent, he said, has completed more than 11,000 hours of testing and analysis of the electronic system.
Toyota, meanwhile, has conducted 2,000 inspections and provided House investigators with more than 700 technical reports.
"Significantly, none of these investigations have found that our electronic throttle control system with intelligence, or ETCS-i, was the cause," Lentz said in prepared remarks.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said Toyota had tried to damage the credibility of an Illinois engineering professor who testified at a February congressional hearing that he had recreated sudden acceleration in a Toyota.
Stupak says at a House hearing Thursday that Toyota hired a polling firm to learn more about what it could do to repair damage to the company's image. And he called a Toyota consulting firm's report on the professor's research a "hit job, not solid science."
David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said his agency had spoken to nearly 100 vehicle owners who said they had unintended acceleration following a recall fix. But he said NHTSA had not seen pedal entrapment or sticky accelerators in vehicles that have been properly repaired.
Strickland said the government was continuing its investigation, with the help of NASA scientists, into acceleration problems. A separate 15-month study by the National Academy of Sciences is set to begin in July. "We're going to turn over every stone," he said.