CARBONDALE, Ill. - It's the kind of publicity any university might dream about: An instructor uncovers a possible flaw that's causing some of the world's most popular cars to accelerate suddenly. His groundbreaking work attracts interest from Congress and reporters worldwide.
But as Southern Illinois University's David Gilbert sought to show electronics might be to blame for the problem in Toyotas, the world's largest automaker tried to cast doubt on his findings. One Toyota employee even questioned whether he should be employed by the school, long a recipient of company donations.
Electronic messages obtained by The Associated Press show the automaker grew increasingly frustrated by Gilbert's work and made its displeasure clear to his bosses at the school.
"It did kind of catch us off-guard," university spokesman Rod Sievers said.
So did the fallout. Two Toyota employees quickly resigned from an advisory board of the school's auto-technology program, and the company withdrew offers to fund two spring-break internships.
"I didn't really set out to take on Toyota. I set out to tell the truth, and I felt very strongly about that," said Gilbert, who was among the first to suggest electronics, not sticky gas pedals or badly designed floor mats, caused the acceleration that required the Japanese automaker to recall millions of vehicles.
Toyota insists its relationship with the school remains "strong," and company officials say they have no plans to stop contributing to SIU. They also say the two Toyota representatives who stepped down from the advisory board did so merely to avoid any appearance that the company was exerting influence over Gilbert's testimony.
"We have absolutely no issues with SIU and retain an excellent relationship. That won't change," Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore said.
Prodded by his own curiosity, Gilbert in January found he could manipulate the electronics in a Toyota Avalon to re-create acceleration without triggering any vehicle computer trouble codes. Such codes send the computer into a fail-safe mode that allows the brake to override the gas.
Gilbert said he reported his "startling discovery" to Toyota, and the automaker "listened attentively." But Gilbert said he never heard back from the company, which has steadfastly maintained the problems were mechanical, not electronic.
Next, Gilbert told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, then made plans to tell Congress. "I didn't feel I could just be passive in this," he said.
The pressure continued to build. On March 8, Mark Thompson - identifying himself as an SIU alum and, without elaboration, a Toyota Motor Sales employee - voiced in an e-mail to the university's then-chancellor, Sam Goldman, his "great concern and disappointment" about Gilbert. Thompson said he was "deeply disturbed" by what he called Gilbert's false accusations about the automaker.
Thompson reminded Goldman that he and Toyota regularly contributed to the university - including a $100,000 check to the auto-tech program in late 2008 - and "due to the outstanding reputation your automotive technology program has, we donate much more than money," including cars.
Gilbert says he never felt his job was threatened, though "there were some moments where I kind of felt I was standing alone." He said if his work "can somehow make a car safer in the very narrow scope of electronic throttle controls . . . then to me it's worth it. Because that could be someone's life that I could be saving."