Congress says Toyota misled public about runaway cars, engine electronics

By Peter Whoriskey and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A12

Congressional investigators Monday accused Toyota officials of making misleading public statements about the causes of its runaway cars and faulted federal safety regulators for conducting "cursory and ineffective" investigations because of a crippling lack of expertise.

The charges from House members amplify the unprecedented scrutiny focused on the beleaguered automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition to three congressional committees, which are holding hearings beginning Tuesday, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed company documents relating to unintended acceleration, and so has the Securities and Exchange Commission, Toyota announced Monday.

The allegations Monday from Energy and Commerce committee members frame what is expected to be one of the key questions before lawmakers, as well as consumers: Has Toyota really made its cars safe by recalling interfering floor mats and sticky pedals, as it has said repeatedly, or does the cause of the unintended acceleration episodes go deeper into engine electronics?

Congressional investigators, along with safety advocates, victims' families and trial lawyers, are skeptical of Toyota's explanations. They think there is a problem in the electronic throttle systems.

The letters Monday from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) to James E. Lentz III, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood accused Toyota and federal safety regulators of overlooking evidence as far back as 2004 that the automaker's engine electronics had defects that could be causing unintended acceleration.

In June 2004, the automaker and NHTSA officials discussed a chart showing that Toyota Camrys with new electronic throttles had 400 percent more complaints regarding "vehicle speed."

Moreover, according to investigators, Toyota could have seen from its database of consumer calls that floor mats and sticky pedals didn't explain all the reports of unintended acceleration. Approximately 70 percent of the sudden unintended acceleration events in Toyota's customer database involved vehicles that are not subject to recalls.

"Yet despite these warnings, Toyota appears to have conducted no systematic investigation into whether electronic defects could lead to sudden unintended acceleration," the Waxman and Stupak letter to Lentz said.

The investigators also noted that in a Feb. 5 letter, a Toyota attorney reported to the committee that the causes of sudden unintended acceleration are "multiple" and "hard to identify."

By assuring the public that new floor mats and pedals would fix the problem, Toyota had "made misleading public statements," Waxman and Stupak wrote.

Toyota has strenuously maintained that it has checked its electronics and that the engines should self-detect and resolve electronics troubles. In internal documents cited by congressional investigators, Toyota officials blamed drivers for pressing on the accelerator when they thought it was the brake.

Moreover, the automaker has sent Congress a report from a California engineering company, Exponent, that said it could find no troubles with Toyota engines. Waxman and Stupak criticized the report, which studied six Toyota vehicles.

"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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