Toyota Congressional Hearing Theater

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
The congressional hearings examining the sudden unintended acceleration and other safety issues with Toyota vehicles heated up Tuesday afternoon when Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) questioned the motives of the featured expert witnesses.

Buyer (seen at left), who disclosed that plants in his district manufacture Toyota vehicles, questioned the motives of Sean Kane, president of Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies Inc., and David Gilbert, an automotive technology professor at Southern Illinois University.

The two provided testimony and documentation at the House Energy & Commerce/Oversight Subcommittee hearing that an electrical malfunction was a cause of unintended acceleration in some Toyota vehicles that led to injuries and fatalities.

Mr. Kane's company produced a 51-page report that alleged more than 2,000 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported sudden acceleration, resulting in 815 crashes, 341 injuries and 19 deaths since 1999. Mr. Gilbert did his own testing and analysis, finding that an electronic design flaw prevented the car's onboard computer from detecting and stopping certain short circuits that can trigger sudden speed surges.

Rep. Buyer asked Mr. Kane whether he was paid by a group of lawyers with pending litigation against Toyota. Mr. Kane admitted that he was paid by lawyers with pending suits against Toyota, but said that he wasn't paid enough to make the trip to Washington as Rep. Buyer pressed him for a yes or no answer. That heated exchange led committee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) to intervene.

After settling down, Rep. Buyer asked Mr. Gilbert if he was paid by Mr. Kane for his research into Toyota's alleged sudden unintended acceleration problems. Mr. Gilbert responded that he was paid $1,800 and Mr. Kane added that he was given $4,000 in equipment. When asked about further payments, Mr. Gilbert said he would be paid $150 per hour for any future consulting.

In his testimony, subsequent to Mr. Kane and Mr. Gilbert, Toyota's president and COO of United States operations James Lentz said, "We are confident that no problems exist with the electric throttle control system in our vehicles. Rather, floormats and sticky accelerators are to blame," he said.

Mr. Lentz questioned whether Mr. Gilbert "could figure out in three hours" what Toyota has been "looking at for ten years."

"We are not here to blame customers for sticky accelerators," Mr. Lentz said.

Later during the questioning, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) asked Mr. Lentz to clarify what a Toyota lawyer had shared on Tuesday regarding replicating Mr. Gilbert's tests. Mr. Lentz said that during the "wee hours of last night," Exponent, an engineering company that has worked with Toyota before, was able to replicate the conditions of Dr. Gilbert's test on the ETCS-i system (Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence) without an error code, apparently by splicing wires together.

Mr. Lentz said he would provide the test results to the committee,with caveats. "I don't know exactly how Mr. Gilbert has done this, and I'm not sure if what Mr. Gilbert has done can happen in the real world." Exponent was also able to replicate the test on a competitive vehicle, but the results may be unique to Mr. Gilbert's testing paradigm, Mr. Lentz added.

He also said that without an error code for the ETCS-i system and a way to duplicate the problem, it's difficult to address an issue. However, Exponent has tested only a limited number of vehicles so far.

"We'll get to the bottom of it, but the bottom of it could find nothing," Mr. Lentz said.

He didn't rule out the possiblity that an electronics problem could be identified in future testing.

Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Penn.) followed Rep. DeGette and suggested that Toyota work with Mr. Gilbert as part of its ongoing testing of its electronic systems.

If the House Energy & Commerce/Oversight Subcommittee hearing is any indication, Toyota's sudden unintended acceleration, sticking pedals and other safety and quality issues will take years and tens of millions in lawyer fees to resolve or fade into memory.

More Coverage of the Toyota Hearings:

Toyota: Recall's Success No Sure Bet
Toyota Victim Recounts "Near Death" Trip
Rep. Issa: Toyota Hearings Will Be Fair
Toyota President's Prepared Testimony Released
Toyota Head Faces Culture Shock in U.S.
Are Electromagnetic Fields to Blame?
Toyota Dealers to U.S.: No Fair!
Documents: Toyota Surges Related to Electronics
Toyota to Put Brake Override in More Cars
Analysis: Car Companies Hope to Avoid Toyota's Fate
Feds Open Criminal Probe into Toyota


Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.

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