By Peter Whoriskey and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A11
The federal government may recommend that automakers include "brake-override" systems in all new vehicles to avert the sort of runaway acceleration that has been reported in several popular Toyota models and linked to a growing number of fatal accidents.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told members of the Senate commerce committee during a hearing on Toyota recalls that a mandate for override devices was something regulators were considering.
"We think it is a good safety device and we're trying to figure out if we should be recommending that," LaHood said. Such override systems give priority to the brakes when an engine's computer thinks that a driver has pressed both the accelerator and brake pedals.
The hearing provided the backdrop for another tough day for the Japanese automaker, which also Tuesday reported a nearly 9 percent drop in U.S. sales in February. The company has been preparing an incentive scheme aimed at rebuilding consumer confidence, but the controversy shows few signs of abating.
The Department of Transportation said Tuesday that complaints of fatal accidents involving unintended acceleration had risen to 43 incidents with 52 deaths. About three-quarters of those reports were received in the last four months, after Toyota issued a large recall.
During Tuesday's hearing, Toyota's chief engineer and chief quality officer faced more stern questions from lawmakers about how the company overlooked consumer complaints of runaway cars.
One of the key unresolved issues in the controversy has been whether the automaker has corrected all of the problems that caused unintended acceleration. Toyota has issued recalls for floor mats and gas pedals, but some safety advocates believe that something is awry in the company's engine electronics.
According to documents presented at the Senate hearing, records compiled by State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer, show that claims of unintended acceleration roughly doubled after Toyota installed electronic throttle controls in the Camry in 2002.
But Toyota's chief engineer said that the company had thoroughly analyzed its electronics and that they are not the source of unintended acceleration.
"I want to be absolutely clear: As a result of our extensive testing, we do not believe sudden unintended acceleration because of a defect in our [electronic throttle control system] has ever happened," said Takeshi Uchiyamada, who also is a company executive vice president.
The disagreement over the cause has left Congress and federal regulators grasping for answers as to whether the cars are safe.
To settle the dispute, a Web site, Edmunds.com, announced Tuesday a $1 million prize for anyone who can find another cause of the phenomenon.
According to the company, the prize will go to a person who can "demonstrate in a controlled environment a repeatable factor that will cause an unmodified new vehicle to accelerate suddenly and unexpectedly."
"We'd like to get to an answer," Edmunds chief executive Jeremy Anwyl said.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said that Toyota should be forced to install brake-override systems on all Toyota vehicles currently in the United States, regardless of how old they are or how much the process will cost.
"This controversy is going to go on for a while," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. "The next issue will be the product liability lawsuits."
New sales numbers showed that Toyota's competitors have picked up customers, some dramatically so: Ford's sales rose 43 percent over February last year. By contrast, sales of the Toyota Camry, the company's best-selling car and the subject of two recalls, were down 20 percent.
The drop in Toyota's February sales came despite the fact that dealers had already begun to offer more incentives to attract buyers. In response to sinking public confidence in the brand, Toyota Motor Sales said it would offer the "most far-reaching sales program in its history."
The marketing program offers 0 percent financing for as long as five years, and cheaper leases. In addition to the incentives, the automaker is rolling out a series of television commercials that will feature customers who recently purchased Toyota vehicles. Others will show salespeople, customer service reps and technicians thanking customers for their loyalty to the brand.
"It's a great time to buy a Toyota," said Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota Division of Toyota Motor Sales USA.