The first round of congressional testimony is over, and today begins round two at the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Yesterday's hearings at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce saw Toyota admitting that it is not certain that it has found the ultimate cause of its customer complaints involving runaway cars.
As described in today's Washington Post, Rep. Henry Waxman asked James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, the question:
"Do you believe that the recall on the carpet changes and the recalls on the sticky pedals will solve the problem of sudden, unintended acceleration?"
"Not totally," Lentz replied.
"What do you need to do?" Waxman asked.
"We need to continue to be vigilant and continue to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers -- that we have done a relatively poor job of doing in the past," Lentz said.
President Lentz also said that Toyota was still convinced that the problem was not in its electronic throttle system, but that it may lie in "transmission software problems, faulty cruise control and even engine revs caused by engaging the air conditioner could trigger sudden acceleration events," a story in the LA Times reported.
USA Today ran an article yesterday about electronic interference in cars being a source of potential trouble along with some examples.
When asked about the test that Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University had done that showed it was possible to bypass the safety measures built into its electronic throttle system and leave no telltale signs, Toyota's initial response (via its lawyers) was that what the professor had done was "sabotage" and therefore, wasn't likely to be a problem. Toyota also questioned how a professor could find the problem so quickly when no one on Toyota's engineering staff or its consultants could do so (shades of the WWII US Navy torpedo problems and bureaucratic mind set I blogged about earlier). Later, under more questioning, president Lentz said that Toyota welcomed anyone that can find an issue with its electronics, and promised to work with professor Gilbert.
Furthermore, yesterday, Toyota President Akio Toyoda released a statement saying that Toyota had, "pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization. ...I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."
President Toyoda added that, "... Toyota's priority has traditionally been the following: First; Safety, Second; Quality, and Third; Volume. These priorities became confused..."
This has to be seen as a direct rebuke of previous Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe, who pushed for growth and maintained that quality and safety risks could be managed.
President Toyoda said that the company would get back to its roots.
Listening and watching clips from the proceedings yesterday were a bit sad. As another story in today's Washington Post described it, President Lentz was not well briefed before his testimony. A lot of questions of a technical nature were asked, and Lentz said he couldn't answer them because he wasn't an engineer. He was also asked a lot of questions about the status of the recall, and couldn't answer those either. Apparently, the president of Toyota USA isn't privy to the information.
The person who the US Congress really needed to testify is Toyota's Executive Vice President responsible for quality control across Toyota, Shinichi Sasaki. He is the person who should be able to answer all their questions.
It is probably too late for that now.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.