Congressional committees gearing up for Toyota hearings

Congressional investigators opening hearings this week on Toyota’s sudden-acceleration troubles say they will focus on discrepancies in the automaker’s explanation of the problem, the role of regulators who oversee the industry -- and ultimately whether federal safety standards are grossly outdated, given the advanced electronics technology at the heart of modern car-making.

Two House committee hearings, on Wednesday and on Feb. 25, will take place amid the high political pressures that shape Washington investigations. Toyota Motor Corp. has major operations in nine states, and says its company and dealership facilities employ 172,000 people -- constituents of more than three dozen House and Senate members.

Toyota says that floor mats and sticking gas pedals are the only causes of sudden unintended acceleration in its vehicles, a problem that has been the subject of more than 2,000 consumer complaints to federal safety regulators.

Investigators and congressional staffers say that, based on a preliminary review of internal company and government documents, Toyota has not adequately addressed suspicions that the problem may lie in defects in the engine’s electronic control systems.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, meeting at month’s end, will “examine whether Toyota’s public statements about the causes of sudden acceleration explain the problems that have been plaguing consumers,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), the committee chairman.

He said his committee would also examine the role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency has conducted eight investigations of sudden acceleration in Toyota cars and trucks since 2003, The Times reported late last year, but the problem has persisted, leading to recalls that now cover 9 million vehicles worldwide.

At issue, Waxman said, is “when the company and NHTSA first learned of the problems and whether they responded appropriately.”

In the months ahead, Congress will also begin to consider whether safety standards that set minimum legal requirements for the design and testing of cars and trucks have failed to address the advanced technology used in modern engine control systems.

Current federal standards were largely drafted in the 1960s and ‘70s, long before electronic systems began to take over the critical functions of engines. Many automakers now use electronic throttle-control systems that connect a driver’s foot to the engine with sensors, computers and wires instead of mechanical links, yet the federal standard on throttles is applicable only to traditional pedals.

“The Toyota investigation is going to go down in history as one of the major probes of all times in auto safety, not because of the number of deaths, which are high enough, but because it captures the public attention,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, who has monitored almost every major automobile safety investigation in Washington for more than two decades. “You can’t have vehicles that take off on their own.”

Credibility issue

The first congressional hearings are set to kick off Wednesday, when Toyota Motor North America President Yoshimi Inaba, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Chief David Strickland are called to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.).

The Towns committee is closely examining the credibility of Toyota’s assertions that floor mats can trap gas pedals in seven of its models. Toyota has not yet been able to demonstrate that its models became more vulnerable to entrapment over the last decade, based on changing designs that reduced the gap between the gas pedals and the floor, according to committee staffers who were not authorized to speak publicly.

In 2007, Toyota conducted a recall on its Camry and Lexus ES models, saying floor mats could trap the accelerator pedals. In 2009, it did a second recall affecting seven models, citing the same issue with floor mats.

The committee will seek to determine when Toyota engineers first learned that the distance between the mats and the pedals was too narrow -- and why they did not act sooner to correct a problem that they may have been aware of since at least 2007.

“They have to show a design change that triggered the problem -- that’s the burden Toyota has,” one staffer said. “This boils down to a gap issue.”

Toyota said Saturday that it had expanded its efforts to respond to the crisis. The company has hired consultants Glover Park Group, which includes senior Clinton administration officials, to assist in the matter.

The examination of the automaker’s sudden-acceleration problem will take place in a charged political atmosphere, given the potent grass-roots power that comes with thousands of Toyota jobs spread across the nation.

Toyota has made “strategic investments” in placing key jobs across the U.S. political landscape and will attempt to cash in on those plays, even if it has little hope of blunting the damage, said Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.

Toyota, for example, has 7,000 jobs in Kentucky, 7,300 in Indiana, 1,000 in West Virginia, 1,800 in Texas and more than 6,000 in California, among other states. Senior leaders representing those states include Republicans such as Sens. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and Democrats such as Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California.

Toyota also has about 1,200 jobs near the district of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a longtime friend of the auto industry.

One indication of the political machinations hitting the committees was a recent query by a news organization asking whether the investigations are part of an Obama administration effort to shore up General Motors, in which the federal government is now the majority share owner.

“After I stopped laughing, I realized this is going to be a challenge,” said one staffer, who asked not to be identified. “You know there are going to be people out there who will try to politicize this and make it something it isn’t.”

But Republicans are also asking tough questions, including Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, the senior Republican on the Towns committee, who founded and built automotive electronics giant Directed Electronics.

“I’m extremely concerned,” Issa said about the potential that electronic defects could cause the sudden-acceleration problem in Toyotas. But Issa said he intended to focus his query on the role of NHTSA and its failure to get a handle on the problem sooner. Issa said he doubted that federal regulators had adequately overseen the safety of advanced electronic systems or fully understand what is at stake.

For example, Directed Electronics builds remote starting systems that use hardware and software in vehicles to allow motorists to start an engine hundreds of feet away from the driver’s seat. “One of the greatest nightmares we have had in our business is that the car would start in the garage when everybody is asleep,” Issa recalled.

Past oversight

Issa also raised questions about whether Bush administration officials exercised adequate oversight during their tenure, and said that former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and former NHTSA administrators Nicole Nason and David Kelly should be called to testify.

Towns’ Democratic committee staff, meanwhile, is likely to look at the Toyota Tacoma pickup as a key case study in the hearings, because it does not use the gas pedal that Toyota has said is vulnerable to sticking in other models and yet has a large number of sudden-acceleration reports -- some in which the drivers have said there were no floor mats.

Toyota has told the committee that the Tacoma is among the three models with the most sudden-acceleration complaints, along with the Camry and Lexus ES350.

Another key issue for both committees is likely to be the automaker’s decision not to adopt a brake override system, which would automatically cut power to the engine any time a driver’s foot is on the brake. A number of other automakers adopted such software as an additional safety measure when they began using electronic throttles over the last decade.

When it recalled seven of its models for floor mats last fall, Toyota said it would reprogram the computers of some of the recalled vehicles to install the software, but in some cases the vehicles’ computer systems lacked adequate memory for the new software, the company has told Congress.

The company plans to put the feature on its new vehicles starting late this year, but it has not indicated a plan to install it on most of the millions of Toyotas that are already on the road.