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Calls grow for throttle safeguard

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington Ken Bensinger -- Momentum is building for a rule requiring automakers to install brake override systems so drivers can stop their cars during incidents of sudden acceleration, which has been blamed in the deaths of more than 50 people in accidents involving Toyota vehicles nationwide.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Toyota’s sudden-acceleration problem Tuesday, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said “strong legislative action,” including mandates for brake overrides, is needed to protect motorists. Rockefeller, the committee chairman, also called for requiring senior company executives to personally certify that information provided to regulators is “100% correct and accurate.”

The Department of Transportation is also considering a rule to mandate an override system.

“We think it is a good safety device, and we’re trying to figure out if we should be recommending that,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told members of the committee.

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At the hearing, senators slammed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- overseen by LaHood’s department -- for not identifying serious safety problems with Toyota vehicles earlier, saying that the agency does not have enough technical expertise to handle increasingly complex auto electronics systems and questioning whether government officials are too cozy with the industry they oversee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and three other senators questioned whether two former NHTSA officials who went to work for Toyota influenced the government’s slow response.

LaHood said they complied with legal prohibitions on contacting the agency on issues they had worked on at the agency, but said he would welcome a rule preventing NHTSA employees from going to work for automakers until at least two years after leaving the agency.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) called the agency’s response to the safety issues “lethargic” and “outdated.”

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Senators also publicly chastised three Toyota executives who testified later for not responding more aggressively to the sudden-acceleration complaints.

But even with another round of apologies from company executives, Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota Motor Corp.'s executive vice president in charge of quality assurance and customer service, suggested that sudden acceleration was caused by driver error, such as improperly placed floor mats.

“We need to do more to consider customer expectations and real-world usage of our vehicles, even irregular use,” he said. “We need to reduce the number of things we ask our customers to do correctly.”

Takeshi Uchiyamada, the company’s chief engineer, told senators that the company had done extensive testing on the electronic system in its vehicles and was confident it is not the cause of the sudden acceleration, which also has led to Toyota’s issuing nearly 10 million recall notices worldwide.

“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,” he said. “However, we will continue to search for any event in which such a failure could occur.”

Toyota has sold 40 million vehicles with such a system, he said, but “there was not a single case” in which they could identify the electronic throttle control system as the cause of the unintended acceleration.

Uchiyamada and the other executives stressed the changes Toyota is making to improve vehicle safety and consumer confidence. They announced that a Toyota official from North America now will have a formal role on recall decisions, which previously had been made exclusively in Japan, and that former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater would head a blue-ribbon panel of independent experts to review the company’s “enhanced quality controls.”

Separately, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office is opening a preliminary criminal investigation of Toyota, examining a range of potentially illegal behavior, including false advertising and making unsupported assurances to Toyota owners about the safety of their vehicles.

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The city became concerned about its own liability because it owns about 750 Toyota vehicles in its fleet, said Jeffrey Isaacs, deputy chief of the special operations and litigation division. And the city pension fund owns Toyota stock, he said.

The city can bring misdemeanor, but not felony, charges. Last week, Toyota disclosed that it had received a subpoena from the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, indicating federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation. The company also said it received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission office in Los Angeles.

In Washington, Rockefeller said Toyota and NHTSA failed to respond properly to a flood of complaints beginning in 2003 about sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

One reason for the government’s failure, he said, was that agency employees lacked the expertise and desire to investigate whether the problems were caused by the electronic throttle control system rather than improperly installed floor mats.

“I think that NHTSA investigators . . . would rather focus on floor mats than microchips because they understand floor mats,” Rockefeller said. The head of NHTSA said Tuesday it had five electrical engineers out of 125 total engineers on staff. Last week, LaHood told a different congressional panel that the agency had only two electrical engineers on staff.

LaHood did not dispute the contention about the agency, but said it was now fully investigating the electronics.

“I don’t know if NHTSA turned a blind eye because they didn’t understand chips or the electronics,” said LaHood, who has been in his position since early 2009. “I know this: We’re going to get to the bottom of the electronics.”

Toyota’s top U.S. official, Yoshimi Inaba, told the Senate panel that the automaker would install a brake override system on all new cars starting late this year.

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In addition, he said, Toyota would put the safeguard on seven existing models as part of its recalls. It also is considering extending the fail-safe feature to other models in the recalls but has not yet determined which vehicles can receive the upgrade.

“Toyota will be one of the first full-line automakers to make brake override systems standard,” Inaba said.

He did not discuss whether the feature would be added to all Toyota models already on the road that have electronic throttles, millions of which are not included in the recalls.

The brake override feature, called a “smart pedal,” is not new technology.

Mercedes-Benz started using it more than six years ago. Since then Nissan, Volkswagen, Porsche and Chrysler have adopted the fail safe in most, if not all, of their vehicles. BMW is already implementing the second generation of brake override software.

Ford and General Motors also have it on some models, but until the current crisis Toyota did not use it on any of its Scion, Toyota or Lexus vehicles.

NHTSA told the committee it had now received 52 complaints of fatalities involving sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000. A Times review Sunday of public records and interviews with authorities found at least 56 deaths blamed on sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

Among the fatalities reported to NHTSA, 41 of the deaths were reported in vehicles with electronic throttle control systems.

About 60% of the incidents have been reported since Toyota issued a recall in January for vehicles in which the gas pedal could stick.

jim.puzzanghera @latimes.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ralph Vartabedian contributed to this report.


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