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Congress says Toyota misled public about runaway cars, engine electronics

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.

"It is well known that the phenomenon of sudden acceleration, while often deadly, is not so widespread that such simple tests with such extremely small sample sizes would uncover the root cause," University of Maryland engineering professor Michael Pecht told the committee.

NHTSA, meanwhile, was woefully unprepared to decide whether engine electronics might be at fault, Waxman and Stupak said.

NHTSA officials told investigators that the agency doesn't employ any electrical engineers or software engineers.

Moreover, as NHTSA and Toyota discussed the problem in 2004, one of NHTSA's principal investigators admitted in an e-mail to Toyota that, "I'm not very knowledgeable on this system."

Last year, a top Toyota official asserted that a negotiated agreement with U.S. government auto-safety regulators on sudden acceleration prevented a widespread vehicle recall and saved the Japanese auto giant more than $100 million.

NHTSA spokeswoman Olivia Alair noted that the agency is again looking at the possibility that engine electronics are causing unintended acceleration and that since 1980, NHTSA has conducted 141 investigations related to throttle control issues.

"NHTSA has numerous engineers on staff with experience with electrical engineering and [electronic throttle control] issues, and also consults with outside experts whenever necessary," Alair said.

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