TOKYO -- After recent talks with Toyota executives in Japan, the head of the independent panel investigating the automaker's quality problems pledged tougher scrutiny of alleged links between faulty electronic controls and complaints of unintended acceleration.
Rodney Slater, former U.S. transportation secretary, said his committee needs to dig deeper than the Toyota-funded study done this year by the engineering firm Exponent.
"We need to look beyond that to find clarity," Slater said in a Thursday, June 10, telephone interview. He added that the envisioned investigation would be more comprehensive.
"It's not that Exponent is unprofessional," Slater said. "But we want a more 360-degree view and [to] go beyond that."
The extensive use of electronic controls in cars is a relatively recent phenomenon and warrants more thorough testing, Slater said.
"The whole issue of electronics is relatively new in the industry," he said, "and the potential implications are potentially revolutionary."
In March, Toyota appointed Slater head of the North American Quality Advisory Panel to root out the causes of Toyota's quality problems, monitor proposed fixes and suggest improvements. The six-member team made its first visit to Toyota Motor Corp. headquarters in Japan May 23-27.
Creation of the panel was a key ingredient in Toyota's self-prescribed comeback plan. With its reputation for quality battered by the recall of more than 9 million vehicles since last fall, Toyota was eager to inject fresh outside opinion. Toyota is funding the independent group.
Some critics have cited faulty electronic throttle controls as a cause of the unwanted acceleration that led to most of the recalls. The Exponent study found no problem with Toyota's technology, but skeptics cast doubt on the results because Toyota had paid for the study.
Slater said that during last month's trip, he was reassured by President Akio Toyoda that Toyoda would protect his panel's independence and not interfere with its agenda.
Slater said Toyoda also told him that the Toyota chief's testifying before Congress this year had opened his eyes to the true scope of the problem in the United States.
"It was quite an intensive experience for him," Slater said. "The preparation for that helped him hone and sharpen some of the beliefs that he was already taking to the job. He takes a special interest in those commitments because his family's name is on the automobiles."
Slater also said a communication breakdown between the Japanese carmaker and U.S. regulators was a big reason that Toyota's recall crisis snowballed so quickly.
"They did not communicate effectively with the Department of Transportation and NHTSA in the early stages," Slater said. "There is a communication issue that needs to be addressed."
While in Japan, Slater's committee had extensive meetings with Toyoda, top-level executives and Chairman Fujio Cho. The committee also toured the company's headquarters campus.
The visit came just ahead of the panel's 100-day milestone.
Already, its members have toured and interviewed people throughout North America, visiting Toyota's manufacturing operation in Kentucky; Toyota Motor Sales' offices in California; r&d and design operations in Michigan and Arizona; a Toyota dealership; and the Menlo Park, Calif., offices of Exponent.
"We've done a major outing or major interface every week," Slater said.
The other members of the panel are Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.; Patricia Goldman, former National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman; Mary Good, dean of engineering and information technology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Sheila Widnall, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former secretary of the U.S. Air Force; and Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.