Hearing to examine government response to Toyota gas pedal recall

A congressional oversight committee called government officials into a hearing next Thursday to examine the government’s response to Toyota Motor Corp.'s huge recall of cars and trucks over potentially malfunctioning gas pedals.

Separately, the Japanese automaker, beset by sudden acceleration problems in many of its vehicles, said its recall in Europe may eventually affect 1.8 million vehicles.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hear testimony from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D- New York). The situation has spawned growing confusion and concern that the pedal issues may not be isolated to Toyota, Towns said.

“In short, the public is unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it,” he said.

Consumer Reports magazine temporarily suspended its “recommended” status for the eight models recalled in the U.S., as well as one Pontiac model that also may have sticky accelerator pedals. On Friday the publication also advised buyers looking for used cars to avoid purchasing the affected vehicles for now.

“We continue to feel these are fundamentally good cars,” said David Champion, director of the magazine’s Auto Test Center. “We took this step simply because we did not feel comfortable continuing to recommend them until the accelerator problem is fixed.”

Also Friday, Toyota Motor Europe said that it was recalling eight models, including 2005-2009 AYGOs, 2008-2009 iQs, 2005-2009 Yarises, 2006-2010 Aurises, 2006-2009 Corollas, 2009-2010 Versos, 2008-2009 Avensises, and 2005-2009 RAV4s.

The European recall is a “preventative measure” directed at vehicles that may have potential problems with accelerator pedals. The recall does not affect Lexus models. Production will not be halted because changes already had been adopted in newly made cars, the automaker said.

The company said Thursday that it would pull vehicles from China, including more than 75,000 RAV4 sport utility vehicles built between March 19, 2009 and Jan. 25, the government’s product-safety group said on its website. Toyota has about a 7% market share in China, where the RAV4 was second only to Honda’s CR-V in SUV sales as of November.

On Tuesday, Toyota issued an unprecedented stop-sale and halted production on eight of its most popular models: 2009 and 2010 RAV4, 2009 and 2010 Corolla, 2009 and 2010 Matrix, 2005 to 2010 Avalon, 2010 Highlander, 2007 to 2010 Tundra and 2008 to 2010 Sequoia. The company then said on Wednesday that it had added 1.1 million vehicles to a recall announced in the fall relating to floor mats that can jam accelerator pedals.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee also will hold a hearing Feb. 25. The subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), on Thursday issued exhaustive data requests to both Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Citing “persistent consumer complaints of sudden unintended acceleration,” the committee made the request in a letter to Yoshimi Inaba, the president of Toyota Motor North America Inc., and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

The probe began earlier this week after Toyota said it would stop production and sales of eight of its most popular vehicles, including the Camry and Corolla, while it developed a remedy for a sticking accelerator-pedal system that can cause unintended acceleration.

“I am concerned by the seriousness and scope of Toyota’s recent recall announcements,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). “Our hearing will help us better understand how quickly and effectively Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responded to consumer complaints about the safety of the recalled Toyota vehicles.”

In an interview, Stupak said that he remained uncertain whether Toyota’s assessment of the problem was adequate. In the letters to Toyota and NHTSA, Stupak asked for a comprehensive timeline of what the two organizations knew about sudden-acceleration problems and when they knew it.

The panel wants an analysis of NHTSA’s early-warning system, a statistical forecasting tool that was put in place over the last decade to signal the very kinds of problems that Toyota vehicles have experienced. That system apparently failed to flag the problem. The letter also asks for data on every complaint, petition, report and technical analysis that might be relevant to Toyota sudden-acceleration events.