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Lawmakers: Toyota is dragging its feet

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Members of a congressional committee holding a follow-up hearing on Toyota's unintended acceleration problems Thursday accused the automaker of being more interested in defending itself from lawsuits than in actually finding the source of problems with unintended acceleration.

Representative Henry Waxman (D - CA) accused Toyota of "worrying more about defensiveness than about finding answers" as the carmaker worked with an outside consulting firm to investigate possible issues.

Toyota already faced a round of hearings before the Senate and House of Representatives in February over these problems.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide for acceleration-related problems in the past several months.

In December, Toyota had hired the research firm Exponent to conduct analyses to try to determine possible causes of sudden acceleration in Toyota cars. Toyota's relationship with Exponent was a focus of Thursday's hearings as committee members grilled a Toyota executive about the fact that Exponent's contract was not with Toyota itself but with the automaker's legal defense firm.

"They were reporting through product liability attorneys," Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA told the committee. "That changed this week."

From now on, Lentz said, Exponent would report directly to Steve St. Angelo, who has been appointed to had a new North American Quality Task Force.

Lentz did not promise, however, that the reporting change would alter Exponents actual written contract.

Lentz testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

So far, committee members said, citing documents from the automaker and Exponent, Toyota has paid Exponent $3.3 million for roughly 11,000 hours of work.

Exponent has still not produced a written plan for its research, committee members said, something Lentz promised St. Angelo would demand.

So far, Exponent has also not produced a final report on what is causing the problem and Lentz declined to say when such a report would be completed.

David Strickland, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, testified that his agency has been working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on a "multi-causation study" that will look into whether multiple concurrent issues could be causing the problems.

NHTSA's joint report with NASA will be prepared by the end of August, Strickland said. To top of page

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