WASHINGTON -- In the first known study of its kind, an automotive technology professor told lawmakers today that his 3½-hour test of Toyota vehicles found evidence that unintended acceleration could be caused by breakdowns in the electronic controls.
David Gilbert, a professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that comparable tests he conducted on the electronic systems of other automakers did not show similar defects.
Gilbert’s testimony contradicted the repeated statements of top Toyota Motor Corp. executives that the company’s extensive tests of unwanted acceleration found that the problem never could be linked to electronic interference.
Gilbert said his preliminary tests of four Toyota vehicles introduced malfunctions into the vehicle circuits that were not detected by their electronic throttle control systems.
“A complete or partial failure of these electrical circuits, sensors, wiring or actuators in combination with an absence of fail-safe strategies could potentially result in a runaway engine,” he said.
Gilbert said it was possible that Toyota’s gas-pedal systems “could have been mismanufactured from the very day they were built.”
He said additional research was necessary.
Gilbert is being paid $1,800 by Safety Research & Strategies, a safety advocacy group, to perform additional research on the problem, said Safety Research President Sean Kane.
In private today, Toyota lawyers told the committee that they were able to duplicate Gilbert’s tests and results, said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
They added, though, that Gilbert imposed conditions that “sabotaged” the results because he “manipulated the electronics,” she said.
Asked about the Toyota lawyers’ comments, Gilbert said he believed his findings “could happen in real-world conditions.”
In his later testimony, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Lentz questioned Gilbert’s findings.
"It seems too good to be true that someone can find something in 3½ hours when the industry has been looking at this for 10 years," Lentz said.
'Sick to my stomach'
Gilbert, who undertook the research out of his own curiosity, said the results “made me sick in my stomach.”
He said he immediately contacted Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to notify them of his research but did not get immediate responses. Gilbert said his tests on a 2010 Tundra pickup and other models found that their electronic throttle controls did not detect circuit faults and set a diagnostic trouble code.
Without that code, the vehicle computers did not enter fail-safe modes of operation, Gilbert said.
“In all test-vehicle cases,” he said, “the electronic throttle valve instantaneously moved to wide-open position when the fault was introduced.”