Toyota Aims to Debunk Acceleration Theory


toyota-president-akio-toyodaToyota Motor Corp. staged a demonstration today to rebut claims that the electronics of its cars and trucks are to blame for unwanted acceleration problems that are behind the recall of more than eight million vehicles.The automaker was holding the exhibit to counter tests by an engineering professor that show Toyota engines can be revved by tinkering with the electronics that control acceleration. Many safety experts have suggested electronics are to blame for vehicles that speed of unexpectedly.

Toyota believes that sticky gas pedals and floor mats are to the cause, and the automaker is in the process of fixing millions of vehicles to correct those conditions. But some drivers have reported continued problems in vehicles that have already been fixed.

Toyota aimed duplicate the scenario created by David W. Gilbert, an automotive technology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Gilbert told Congress last month he was able to recreate unwanted acceleration in a Toyota vehicle by manipulating its electronics.

The company called in the director of Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research to try to refute the claims. Stanford professor Chris Gerdes said the malfunctions Gilbert produced were “completely unrealistic” under real-world conditions and could be replicated on other vehicles.

Gerdes said misinterpreting facts could lead to “misguided policy and unwarranted fear.”

Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research is funded by a group of auto companies, including Toyota.

Toyota also has hired a consulting firm to study whether electronic problems could cause unintended acceleration. The firm, Exponent Inc., released an interim report that has found no link between the two.

Gilbert told a congressional hearing on Feb. 23 that he was able to recreate sudden acceleration in a Toyota Tundra, which is covered by two recalls, by short-circuiting the electronic accelerator pedal without triggering any trouble codes in the truck’s computer.

Gilbert, during the hearing, said he made a “startling discovery” that showed the electronic throttle control system could have a problem without producing a trouble code. Without a code, the vehicle’s computer will not enter in a fail-safe mode that would lead to the brake overriding the accelerator.

House lawmakers seized on Gilbert’s testimony as evidence that Toyota engineers missed a potential problem with the electronics that could have caused some vehicles to suddenly surge forward without any warning.

According to an Exponent report last week, Gilbert connected sensor wires from the pedal of a 2010 Toyota Avalon to an engineered circuit. This allowed him to rev the engine without using the pedal. Gilbert demonstrated the method in an ABC News story last month.

Exponent said it reproduced the test on the same model year Avalon and a 2007 Camry and was able to rev the engine. But it concluded that the electronic throttle system would have to be tampered with significantly to create the right conditions.

“Dr. Gilbert’s scenario amounts to connecting the accelerator pedal sensors to an engineered circuit that would be highly unlikely to occur naturally, and that can only be contrived in a laboratory,” the report states.

Exponent was also able to rev the engine of some Toyota competitors using the same technique. The report stresses the tests do not imply there is any defect with those other brands.

Monday’s event is part of a broad campaign by the world’s biggest automaker to discredit critics, repair its damaged reputation and begin restoring trust in its vehicles.

On Friday, a congressional committee questioned Toyota’s efforts to find the causes of the problems. It also questioned whether the company had sufficiently investigated the issue of electronic defects.

Toyota executives also will address recall issues at its annual suppliers meeting in Kentucky on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the troubled automaker has rolled out new ads that skip the apologies and eases back into sales pitches – too soon, some say.

The campaign pushes the idea that Toyota customers remain loyal, even as the company faces congressional inquiries and some reports that its repairs may not fix the problem.

The new campaign, by Toyota’s main ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, emphasizes what Toyota says are real satisfied buyers testifying that they still feel safe in their new Toyotas even after weeks of revelations about accelerator problems.

“And our own personal experience? These cars that we’ve had have been exceptionally safe,” baby boomer Mark Murphy says in one ad. The ad says he and his wife, Donna, bought Corolla and a Sienna on Feb. 20.

The new campaign, which started March 2 and is scheduled to run through April 5, does one thing right, marketing experts say: Troubled brands have to play to their strengths by wooing loyal fans. But some say skipping past the apologies could make Toyota look like it’s mocking safety concerns that are still very real.

Ford Motor Co., for example, laid low on heavy sales pitches for its Ford Explorer for months in 2000 after Bridgestone tires used on the SUVs caused blowouts that led to more than 250 traffic deaths.

People need time to digest bad news, so companies shouldn’t try to start selling too soon, said Mike Sheldon, CEO of ad agency Deutsch LA.

“We haven’t had that chance to just get through the problem and they’re already trying to sell me stuff? I believe that consumers will feel a little confused, like, ‘Aren’t you still fixing the problem? Why are you trying to sell me so hard?’ he said.

But Toyota wants sales. First-time Toyota shopper numbers fell last month, the first full month of sales since the company suspended sales of eight models on Jan. 26. Toyota Vice President Bob Carter told reporters this week that Toyota was focusing less on sales last month, but is shifting back now. All models are back in showrooms.

“Frankly as an organization, we turned our sights away from sales and went 100 percent at taking care of our customers. It was the right thing to do and now coming in March, we’re back in the sales business,” he said.

The local and national television ads feature unprecedented incentives from Toyota, which saw its sales fall 9 percent last month. They’re the first major sales push since the company’s trio of apology ads, which started airing in early February telling owners that Toyota was taking care of problems. Incentives include zero percent financing for five years and auto maintenance plans for new owners that rival offerings by luxury brands.

{CBS News/Noam Newscenter}