Lawmaker: Toyota knew of electronic defects

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Lawmaker: Toyota knew of electronic defects
Neil Roland
Automotive News — February 15, 2010 – 12:01 am ET
Lawmakers preparing for hearings on Toyota Motor Corp.’s speed-control problems are reacting with skepticism to the company’s long-standing denials of any electronic defects in its vehicles, based in part on internal 2002 and 2003 documents that have come to investigators’ attention, a key congressman said.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight, said the documents show that Toyota was aware at least 71/2 years ago that its Camry was exhibiting engine surges that might be caused by electronic interference.

An Aug. 30, 2002, technical service bulletin sent by Toyota to its U.S. dealers was titled "ECM Calibration Update: 1 MZ-FE Engine Surging."  It said: "Some 2002 model year Camry vehicles equipped with the 1MZ-FE engine may exhibit a surging during light throttle input at speeds between 38-42 MPH with lock-up (l/U) ‘ON.”’

The bulletin added that the problem would be corrected by a calibration for the engine control module, or ECM, which was part of the Camry’s new electronic throttle control system.  An identical bulletin was sent to dealers May 16, 2003.

According to a Toyota document posted on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Web site, the automaker told NHTSA in 2004 that it had received 113 complaints involving 45 crashes and six injuries. NHTSA said two people were killed when a vehicle drove off the fourth floor of a parking garage.

‘First solid indication’

"This is the first solid indication we have that Toyota’s speed-control problems go back as far as 2002," said Stupak, a former Michigan state trooper. "And calibrating the ECM — that’s electronics."  He said lawmakers "aren’t buying" Toyota denials from 2002 until today that electronic interference hasn’t contributed to acceleration problems.

A House Energy and Commerce Committee inquiry led by Stupak and committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has requested Toyota documents dating back to 2000. They have scheduled a Feb. 25 hearing.

Toyota has said its unintended-acceleration problems stem from floor mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals and that its testing has found no evidence of electronic interference.

Toyota has recalled 8.1 million vehicles worldwide since October for floor mat or sticky-pedal problems, or both. The 2002 Camry never has been recalled for speed-control problems.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said last week that the 2002 bulletin sought to address "a slight delay in acceleration, followed by a slight and momentary ‘surge’ feeling."  The ECM calibration "eliminated a ‘flat spot’ during acceleration," Lyons said. "It was not issued to resolve any computer software or electronic throttle control concerns."

Complaints mount

Toyota introduced a new electronic throttle control system in its 2002 Camry. Shortly after it went on sale, consumers began complaining about engine surges, a Feb. 1 report by Safety Research & Strategies said.  The safety advocacy group, whose clients include plaintiff attorneys, compiled the report from complaints to NHTSA and automakers and from lawsuits and media accounts.

Toyota’s technical service bulletins were a guide for dealers on how to service vehicles brought in for repair.

The 2002 Camry got the third-highest number of unintended-acceleration complaints of any Toyota vehicle dating back to 1999, the Safety Research & Strategies report said.

Complaints about throttle control prompted NHTSA to open a formal investigation in 2004. It closed it 41/2 months later, saying. "A defect trend has not been identified at this time, and further use of agency resources does not appear to be warranted."

One of the reasons NHTSA gave for closing the investigation: "There are no service bulletins or campaigns that relate to the alleged defect." Yet both the 2002 and 2003 technical service bulletins are in NHTSA’s 2004 investigation file on its Web site.

NHTSA said in an e-mail last week that its 2004 investigation didn’t identify any technical service bulletins "that could explain the allegations we were looking into at the time." NHTSA this month said that it "has no reason at this point to believe there are safety defects" in Toyota’s electronic throttle control systems. It cited its own "very limited testing."

NHTSA is now doing a background technology review that includes a look at Toyota’s systems.
Said Stupak: "We’ve got questions for NHTSA."