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Lawmakers just getting started on scrutiny of Toyota

Akio Toyoda’s moment in the national spotlight may be over, but Washington is just getting started.

A day after the president of Toyota Motor Corp. apologized to Congress and millions of his customers over the automaker’s handling of sudden acceleration problems, lawmakers said Thursday that they were planning further hearings scrutinizing both Toyota and the federal agency that oversees it.

One possible outcome: new laws aimed at keeping regulators up to date with the rapid advances in automotive technology, including computer-controlled engine systems.

“This is not the end,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held a hearing Wednesday that featured Toyoda and his top U.S. lieutenant, Yoshimi Inaba. A day earlier, the House Commerce and Energy Committee held a similar hearing.

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“We have to go further and really look at the record,” said Towns, suggesting that he would hold more hearings. “I’m not ruling out legislation.”

Next week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), will hold its own Toyota hearing. On Thursday it invited five witnesses, including Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota’s top safety official in Japan, to appear, along with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The automaker has been asked to explain its handling of complaints about sudden acceleration in its vehicles, a problem that has been blamed in at least 34 deaths since 2000, as well as thousands of other consumer complaints. Officials are asking how long Toyota knew about the problem, whether it dragged its feet in deciding to make recalls and whether glitches in vehicle electronics could contribute to the problem.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, said this week’s action was “just the beginning” of what could be a series of probes into the issue.

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A former trial lawyer with experience in auto accident litigation, Braley said he wanted to reach a “definitive conclusion whether the electronic throttle system in Toyota vehicles is a factor” in sudden acceleration.

Legislators also said they would be turning their attention to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees vehicle safety and has been criticized as being ill-prepared to regulate automakers and their increasingly high-tech cars.

Rockefeller’s committee sent a letter to the Transportation Department’s inspector general Wednesday demanding an audit of NHTSA to determine whether it had thoroughly and fairly investigated the causes of sudden acceleration and whether its officials have “the potential to be excessively influenced by the industry they are supposed to oversee.”

Although LaHood defended the agency, saying it was “not a lap dog for anybody” in his testimony this week, those concerns were echoed by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), chairman of the commerce subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce panel.

Saying he was “deeply troubled” by the regulator’s limitations, Rush announced plans to convene a hearing next month to probe the role NHTSA had in the Toyota crisis, as well as the agency’s general effectiveness given its relatively low budget. Only two of the 125 engineers on the regulator’s staff are electrical engineers, LaHood acknowledged after repeated questioning from committee members.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the ranking minority member of the House oversight committee, said he would consider calling former NHTSA and Transportation Department officials who served under President George W. Bush before Congress. The idea, he said, is to explore the role they had in eight investigations of runaway acceleration in Toyota vehicles that resulted in only two minor recalls since 2003.

One outcome of all the scrutiny, which lawmakers suggested could take place over months, could be new legislation and vehicle regulations. Congress will take a look at laws to require event data recorders, or black boxes, in every vehicle, and to ensure the recorders can be easily read by regulators.

Toyota has said that although all its vehicles made in recent years have such a device, there is only one machine capable of decoding them in the country, and it cannot be used without a company official present.

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Another potential law would require that all new cars have a so-called brake override feature -- a piece of software that ensures the throttle goes to idle when the brake pedal is depressed. After issuing nearly 10 million recall notices to handle sudden acceleration, Toyota said it would install the override on new cars starting with the 2011 model year, as well as some of the recalled models.

Members of Congress are also weighing whether NHTSA should be empowered to levy criminal penalties on automakers for delaying safety recalls. Currently the agency is limited to civil fines, with a cap of $16.4 million, and it has not penalized a car company since 2004.

“Maybe NHTSA needs some teeth,” said Towns, who questions whether the agency, which spends only about $11 million on investigations, is equipped to regulate an industry with hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue.

Much of the focus going forward will remain locked on Toyota, however.

Toyoda’s three-hour testimony before Congress “shed some light, but I think it shed light in a very scary way,” said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad), who said he detected “overconfidence” on the part of Toyoda and Inaba from his perch on the House oversight panel.

“That arrogance really needs to be reined in for the safety of everybody,” Bilbray added.

After his appearance before Congress, Toyoda met with dealers and company employees at the National Press Club, where he delivered an emotional speech, crying slightly as he discussed Toyota’s tribulations.

On Thursday morning, Toyoda met with LaHood before traveling to Kentucky, where Toyota has extensive operations, including an assembly plant in Georgetown that employs nearly 7,000 workers.

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A key question at next week’s Senate hearing is likely to concern interactions between Toyota safety officials and regulators. In December, a top NHTSA official flew to Japan to meet with Sasaki, an event that LaHood said “opened Toyota’s eyes to the seriousness of the situation.”

ken.bensinger@

latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@

latimes.com


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