After Toyota recall, investigators look for faults in electronic throttles

By Peter Whoriskey and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A01

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.

"You also stated in appearances on the Today Show and on CNBC that Toyota first became aware of sticking accelerator pedals in its vehicles in 'late October' of 2009," the letter said. "During the meeting with Committee staff, Toyota officials stated that the company first learned of this problem through reports of sticking pedals in vehicles in England and Ireland in April or May of 2009. Please clarify when Toyota first became aware of sticking accelerator pedals."

As electronic throttles have become common in new cars, several automakers have received complaints about unintended acceleration. But much of the focus has fallen on Toyota because, some industry watchers say, the company's cars have suffered so many such problems.

Industry researcher Safety Research and Strategies has documented more than 2,000 instances of unintended acceleration involving Toyotas, leading to more than 800 crashes and 19 deaths, since 1999.

'Brake override'

To avoid problems with electronic throttles, some automakers have introduced "brake override" systems, an electronic adjustment that allows drivers to stop a car even if the throttle is stuck open.

Claybrook noted that last year, when Toyota announced that it was recalling the floor mats, the automaker also agreed to install an electronic brake override in many of the cars affected.

"If it was just a floor mat problem, taking the floor mat out would correct the problem -- so why are they putting the brake override in?" she said.

A Toyota spokesman said Tuesday that the brake override systems were installed to add "an extra measure of confidence like other passive safety features on our vehicles."

The spokesman said the company expects that the feature will be installed on most new vehicles by the end of 2010.

The grappling over what exactly is causing the problem has cost Toyota customers.

Overall, Toyota sold 98,796 vehicles last month, the lowest number since January 1999. Sales of vehicles carrying the Toyota nameplate -- which does not include other Toyota-made vehicles, such as Lexus models -- hit their lowest level since 1998.

'This wasn't a bump'

Among the many concerned is Carol J. Mathews of Rockville, who said that in 2003, she smashed into a tree in a parking lot off Montrose Road after her Lexus lurched forward. Mathews said she had previously had the problem and complained to her Toyota dealer.

"But this wasn't a bump, it was a crash," she said.

When she complained a second time, she said, the general manager "told me 'you just need to learn how to drive.' They put the onus on the driver. But I felt very strongly that I hadn't driven the into the tree; the car did."

Her complaint launched an NHTSA investigation. But the agency, after studying several similar complaints, closed it without action, and her model is not one that has been recalled.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company