- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One thing about the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations — they’re not engineers.

“I’m not an electrical expert,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman said Tuesday in his opening statement at a hearing on Toyota’s response to incidents of “sudden unintended acceleration.”

“I never even got a C in any kind of engineering class because I never took one,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat.

With such a complex problem at hand — reports say at least 34 motorists have been killed when Toyota-brand vehicles suddenly accelerated — the members turned to Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Republican who earned an industrial engineering degree from Texas A&M University in 1972.

“Shows how long it’s been since I’ve worked on a car, but I was under the impression that the steering mechanism and the fuel acceleration mechanism was like it was years ago, that it was mechanically linked. It’s not. It’s all electronic now,” he said in amazement.

To be fair, Mr. Barton said, “I made C’s” in electrical engineering classes.

Nevertheless, it was this subcommittee that conducted the first hearing into the causes behind the crashes now attributed to sudden unintended acceleration. The dozen or so TV cameras and standing-room-only crowd in a Rayburn House Office Building hearing room Tuesday morning brought out committee members who don’t even serve on the subcommittee.

The star guest was James Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota USA. He quickly informed the subcommittee members, “I’m not an engineer,” and that his expertise is in sales and marketing.

Still, he ruled out what some engineers now consider the most likely cause of sudden unintended acceleration — the electronic console that controls acceleration.

“We are confident that no problems exist with the electronic throttle system in our vehicles,” Mr. Lentz testified. “We have designed our electronic throttle control system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a failure system.”

Tell that to Eddie and Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn. The couple appeared before the subcommittee to explain their harrowing tale of a runaway Lexus, which accelerated to more than 100 mph before Mrs. Smith was able to turn off the car.

“Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy,” said Mrs. Smith, who broke down in tears as she recounted her story.

The couple fiercely refuted determinations by Toyota that their problem was caused by “floor mat entrapment” or “sticky pedal” syndrome. To date, those are the only causes of sudden unintended acceleration acknowledged by Toyota, which has forced the worldwide recall of 8.5 million vehicles, including more than 6 million in the United States.

“My point from all this is to say that for a purported reliable and safety-concerned company such as Toyota claims to be, they sure took the easiest and cheapest route on the electronic issue brought to their attention by us in 2006,” Mr. Smith said.

Two automotive experts also testified Tuesday. One said he was able to re-create the acceleration scenario in a Toyota “in about 3½ hours.” But his highly technical testimony left the panel members grasping for analogies to understand the problem.

“I think you should have called Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei … of ‘My Cousin Vinny,’” Rep. Bruce Braley, Iowa Democrat, said to Mrs. Smith. “It’s probably one of the best movies on trial advocacy and engineering I’ve ever seen.”

Anyone who has seen the movie might remember Miss Tomei, as Mona Lisa Vito, arguing with Vinny Gambini, played by Joe Pesci, about whether she fully turned off a dripping faucet. “This particular model faucet requires a range of 10 to 16 foot-pounds of torque … [and] I used a Craftsman model 1019 Laboratory Edition Signature Series torque wrench … [that had] been calibrated by top members of the state and federal Department of Weights and Measures to be dead-on … accurate.”

But it is another movie that may have been more applicable to Tuesday’s hearing. In “Fight Club,” Edward Norton plays Jack, a recall coordinator for a “major” car company, who explains the equation for deciding whether to recall vehicles.

“Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, and multiply it by the probable rate of failure, B, then multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one,” he says.

Toyota initially asserted that the acceleration problems were caused exclusively by faulty floor mats. The company, which makes the world’s top-selling car, Corolla, bragged last year that convincing U.S. regulators that a cheap fix of the floor mats to address the acceleration problem had saved $100 million, according to a document obtained under subpoena by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

But a fatal crash in December involving sudden acceleration occurred in Texas while the floor mats were in the trunk, prompting Toyota to recall another 2.3 million U.S. vehicles last month to fix a sticky accelerator pedal.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican, put forward a more nefarious plan, citing President Obama’s bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC last year.

“I know some have expressed concern with the possibility that since the federal government now has a vested interest in some of our domestic auto manufacturers, it may have some incentive to highlight potential flaws with competing manufacturers. While I hope and I believe this is not the case, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean somebody isn’t out to get me,” Mr. Gingrey said.

But one thing was clear: Several House members like Toyota. At least their products. Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, drives a Camry hybrid. Mrs. Degette owns three. And Delegate Donna M.C. Christensen of the Virgin Islands said, “My two daughters and 3½ grandchildren drive in Toyota-made cars every day.”

Joseph Curl can be reached at [email protected]

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