After Toyota recall, investigators look for faults in electronic throttles

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.
By Peter Whoriskey and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Federal regulators have launched an inquiry into whether engine electronics caused vehicles to accelerate unexpectedly as legislators and experts on Tuesday cast doubt on Toyota's explanation of its "runaway cars."

The new probe reopened a controversy that seemed to be waning earlier this week, after a Toyota Motor executive went on national television to say a fix was on the way. Several congressmen questioned the company's assurances Tuesday, and new data showed the Japanese auto giant's sales in January falling to their lowest level in 11 years.

"We're not finished with Toyota," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned.

The latest examination by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could address years of complaints regarding electronic throttle control, the computerized gas pedal systems that now operate in most cars.

The government's review will look at the electronics systems across all manufacturers as well as the possibility that engine operation could be disrupted by electromagnetic interference caused by power lines or other sources.

The automaker, meanwhile, attributed incidents of unintended acceleration to improper floor mats and sticky gas pedals, and it has issued recalls involving millions of vehicles.

In appearances on national television Monday, Toyota Motor Sales USA President James E. Lentz announced that the company was already shipping the repair kits to dealers. But despite the company's attempt to put its troubles behind it, the reaction from the NHTSA and Congress suggest that they might just be beginning.

"It really appears that there is a problem in the electronics," said former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook. "There have been incidents of acceleration when the floor mats were already taken out."

In older cars, the accelerator pedal controls the engine via a cable. In newer cars, that connection is made electronically, with pedal sensors relaying the driver's intent to a computer. The operation of such systems can be unpredictable, critics say.

The NHTSA's decision to examine the electronics comes as Toyota and regulators prepare for the first of two congressional hearings next week. Members of the committees have already suggested that they are skeptical of Toyota's claims that it has solved the problem.

Toyota executives, for instance, met with staff members from the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, and when asked whether the automaker was certain that floor mats and sticking pedals fully explained reports of unintended acceleration, "the Toyota officials present responded that causes of unintended acceleration are very, very hard to identify," according to the letter from Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

The letter also called into question Lentz's account of when Toyota recognized the problem with sticking pedals.

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