Rep. Henry Waxman casts further doubt on Toyota


Despite announcing two recalls to address sudden-acceleration problems, Toyota Motor Corp.’s conflicting statements are raising doubts about whether the company knows the exact cause of the defects, the chairman of the House committee investigating the automaker said Tuesday.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said that although Toyota was reassuring the public in the last two weeks that it had identified the cause, it was telling House investigators that getting to the bottom of the issue was very difficult. That leaves open the possibility that it had not identified all of the potential root causes of the condition that has been blamed on 19 deaths and more than 300 crashes over the last eight years, he said.

The contradictory statements “raise questions and doubts about Toyota’s understanding of the risks and the condition,” Waxman said in an interview Tuesday.

Waxman has previously pointed out Toyota’s contradictory statements, but his comments Tuesday go further by suggesting that Toyota may simply not know what is causing its cars to accelerate out of control.

Toyota officials could not be reached for comment.

Toyota has said that floor mats can jam accelerator pedals in 12 of its models and that certain accelerator pedals in eight of its models can become stuck in a partially depressed position after drivers pull their foot off the pedal. It has assured the public that those are the only causes of sudden acceleration.

“They told our staff that the causes are very hard to identify and refused to state that the two recalls had totally resolved the problem,” Waxman added.

Waxman, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked Toyota to explain the contradiction. The committee has scheduled a hearing Feb. 25.

The congressional inquiry into the Toyota recalls also intensified Tuesday as a third committee scheduled a hearing. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee will hold a hearing March 2 and has requested briefings by Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The stepped-up scrutiny of Toyota problems came as American Honda Motor Co. said Tuesday that it was expanding a recall to fix the driver’s air bag inflater in 2001 and 2002 Accord, Civic, Odyssey, CR-V models and some 2002 Acura TL cars.

Honda said it knew of 12 incidents, including one death, in which the air bag did not deploy properly. In some instances it can send shrapnel-like metal fragments through the air bag, injuring or killing the driver. The automaker said it did not know of any events after July 2009.

Honda originally recalled a small number of vehicles in November 2008. After seeing more incidents, it increased the number to 440,000 autos. This adds 378,758 U.S. and Canadian vehicles to the recall.

The automaker said it notified NHTSA of the recall Tuesday and planned to also give the Japanese Transport Ministry similar notice. Honda said it would contact owners by mail.

“There is a heightened sensitivity right now with anything having to do with recalls,” said John Mendel, a Honda senior vice president, but the timing of the announcement was based upon the automaker’s need to notify regulators in the U.S. and Japan.

Meanwhile, State Farm Insurance said Tuesday that it had received numerous inquiries about alleged unwanted acceleration problems in Toyota and Lexus vehicles in recent years and notified federal officials of the problem three years ago.

“We routinely track claim trend information and periodically communicate with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In this case, State Farm notified NHTSA in late 2007 about an uptick in situations involving alleged unwanted acceleration in Toyotas,” said Kip Diggs, the insurer’s spokesman.

Diggs cautioned that his company sold insurance and was “not equipped to draw general conclusions about the safety of a product.”

However, State Farm voluntarily passes on information to federal regulators when it sees trends from its product-related insurance claims, Diggs said. The inquiries from State Farm policyholders were first reported by USA Today.

Since fall, Toyota has issued 10 million recalls worldwide for problems related to unintended acceleration, with about 2 million vehicles subject to more than one recall.

Late Monday, Toyota said it was recalling an additional 437,000 vehicles, including 133,000 Prius and 14,500 Lexus models in the U.S., because of a braking problem. Owners will receive letters starting next week instructing them to bring the vehicles to a dealership to update software in the anti-lock brake system.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday that U.S. officials would continue to press the Japanese automaker to address safety concerns.

“Last Thursday, NHTSA opened a formal investigation of 2010 Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles in response to consumer complaints about braking difficulties, and today, Toyota has acknowledged a safety defect,” LaHood said. “When I spoke with Toyota President Akio Toyoda last week, he assured me that his company takes U.S. safety concerns very seriously.”

U.S. transportation officials have come under fire, along with Toyota, for not reacting more quickly to concerns about sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles. A congressional committee had been scheduled to grill Toyota and U.S. officials this week about the safety problems. But that hearing by the House Government Oversight and Reform committee has been postponed because of the snowstorm that hit Washington last week and another storm expected to begin Tuesday night, according to a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the top Republican on the panel. The hearing has been rescheduled for Feb. 24, the spokesman said.

On Tuesday, corporate credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service placed Toyota’s unsecured long-term-debt rating under review. Moody’s said it was concerned “that the growing scale of Toyota’s product problems and associated recalls may have longer-term impacts on its brand equity, pricing power and market share in key markets.”

Toyota says it knows it has disappointed customers and is taking steps to review its operations.

When he announced the recall in Japan, Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s president and the grandson of the automaker’s founder, said the company planned to establish as many as six quality centers in the U.S. to analyze its problems.

“As we say, Genchi genbutsu [‘Go and see for yourself’], we have to find out what is really happening. And a team that can do such an analysis needs to be structured,” Toyoda said.


Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.