Sustained Outrage

Congress to Toyota: We want answers

jameslentz.jpgOn Saturday, the Gazette-Mail reported that there are those who think that Toyota’s massive recall may not be big enough, because it doesn’t include every model and year with an electronic throttle control system, or ETCS.

Toyota has acknowledged problems with sudden, unwanted acceleration in certain models, but the explanations provided by the carmaker have mostly focused on loose floor mats becoming entangled with the gas pedal, or with the gas pedal itself sticking.

Yesterday, Toyota announced its “comprehensive plan” to fix accelerator pedals. Previously, in November, the company had issued warnings about “potential accelerator pedal entrapment.”

During several damage control interviews yesterday, James E. Lentz (pictured), president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., stuck to this party line. But his version apparently differed from information provided to House Committee on Energy and Commerce staffers on Jan. 27.

Today, committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairmain of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent Lentz a strongly worded letter demanding answers:

On the Today Show, when asked whether electronics in Toyota vehicles could be causing unintended acceleration, you replied that electronics were not to blame and that both Toyota and “other independents” had “thoroughly” tested your vehicles’ electronics systems. On CNBC, you reiterated this conclusion. When you were asked whether “there is a gremlin in the electronics system that is causing these problems,” you said: “We’re confident that there is not. We’ve tested it, outside agencies have tested it.” In a brief interview on ABC News, you insisted that you are “confident there are no electronic problems.” Please provide to the Committee all analyses and documents that substantiate this claim. If Toyota has any analyses or documents that conflict in whole or in part with this claim, please provide those to the Committee too.

Waxman and Stupak asked for the documents by Feb. 5.

The letter also offers a synopsis on what Toyota officials told the committee staffers last week:

When Committee staff inquired whether Toyota could be certain that floor mat entrapment and sticking accelerator pedals fully explained reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, the Toyota officials present responded that causes of unintended acceleration are “very, very hard to identify.” Furthermore, at this meeting, Toyota officials indicated that sticking accelerator pedals are unlikely to be responsible for the sensational stories of drivers losing control over acceleration as their cars race to 60 miles per hour or higher. The officials said that condensation build-up in a “sticky pedal” can cause the accelerator to become lodged in a slightly depressed position, but they said that this would not lead to full-throttle acceleration.

The Toyota officials did tell the Committee staff that accelerator pedals entrapped by all-weather floor mats could cause high-speed acceleration. There are, however, well-publicized, high-speed unintended acceleration events in Toyota vehicles that do not appear to have been caused by all-weather floor mats.

I’m guessing that Rep. Waxman and Rep. Stupak are referring to incidents like the one I wrote about Saturday, where a Michigan mother was killed when her 2005 Toyota Camry suddenly raced to 80 miles per hour before striking a tree, going airborne, then striking another tree. The floor mats in her car had been removed before the accident, according to the lawsuit filed in Genesee County Circuit Court.

Or this Dec. 26 accident, where four people drowned after a 2008 Toyota Avalon sped out of control and plunged into a pond in Southland, Texas. According to the Fort-Worth Star Telegram, investigators found the vehicle’s floor mats in the trunk.