WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking into whether Toyota Motor Corp.'s problems with unintended acceleration can be traced to defects in the electronic controls rather than just the mechanical problems cited by the automaker, a Transportation official said today.
“We're not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today in a statement.
When asked whether the federal review includes possible electronic problems with Toyota vehicles, a Transportation official who asked not to be identified responded in an e-mail, “Yes.”
Toyota spokesman John Hanson said he knows little about the expanded federal investigation.
"After many years of extensive testing, we've found no evidence of an electronic problem that could have contributed to unwanted acceleration," Hanson said in an interview. "We've investigated many times and found no evidence to point to."
Since announcing its recalls and a production halt last week, Toyota has maintained that problems with unintended acceleration were limited to floor mat interference and sticky accelerator pedals.
Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota's vice president in charge of quality, today denied accusations that electronic malfunctions were contributing to the reports of unintended acceleration.
“We have not come across any case in which we have found a malfunction,” Sasaki said in an interview in Japan. “But if any additional reports arise, we will conduct testing using all technology at our disposal.”
Also, in a full-page advertisement that ran in many U.S. newspapers today, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Lentz said: “We have launched a comprehensive plan to permanently fix the vehicles we've recalled because in rare instances, accelerator pedals can, over time, become slow to release or get stuck. We know what's causing this and what we have to do to fix it.”
But Safety Research & Strategies, a consulting firm, said in a posting on its Web site: “Neither floor mats nor sticking accelerator pedals explain many, many incidents” of unintended acceleration.
Electronics have 'significant role'
“By all appearances, electronics are playing a significant role in the problems," Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, said in an interview. The Transportation Department investigation “has needed to happen for some time,'' Kane said.
The investigation should cover 2002-06 Camry cars and 2005-07 Tacoma pickups, both of which have been the subject of numerous consumer complaints suggesting possible electronic defects, he said.
In one case that has raised questions about electronic flaws, Bulent Ezal's 2005 Camry surged over the curb of a restaurant parking lot, lurched 23 feet and careened 70 feet down a cliff into the surf of the Pacific Ocean, killing Ezal's wife, said his attorney, Donald Slavik of Milwaukee.
“His foot was on the brake, floor mats were in position and hooked on, and he was about to shift into park,'' Slavik said. “I'm highly confident it was electronic in nature."