WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators are investigating whether Toyota Motor Corp. made its unintended-acceleration recalls promptly enough and whether they included all models with possible defects.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said today that it asked Toyota to provide documents showing when and how the company learned of the defects that prompted three recalls of 6 million vehicles in the United States.
The recalls of Toyota and Lexus vehicles for unintended acceleration occurred in September 2007, last October and in January of this year.
“Safety recalls are very serious matters, and automakers are required to quickly report defects,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees NHTSA, said in a statement.
Under federal law, automakers must contact NHTSA within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and must promptly conduct a recall, the agency said.
“Toyota takes its responsibility to advance vehicle safety seriously and to alert government officials of any safety issue in a timely manner,” Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said today in an e-mail. “We are reviewing NHTSA's request and will cooperate to provide all the information they have requested.”
NHTSA also requested documents that might show whether the recalls included all models with possible defects.
The request specified models with electronic sensors, which might be implicated in the unintended acceleration.
“We also require information from Toyota on why some models of vehicles with electronic throttle control were not included in the recalls,” NHTSA said in a 21-page letter to Toyota today.
NHTSA gave Toyota until March 18 to reply to the requests for information about the timeliness of the recalls, and until April 16 to reply to the letter asking whether any defective models were excluded from any recalls.
The amount of detailed information requested by NHTSA is "unprecedented" in the agency's history, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety founded by Ralph Nader.
Toyota has denied that any unintended-acceleration problems were attributable to its electronic systems. Instead, the company has blamed floor mats and defective gas pedals.
NHTSA told Toyota today that the new investigation was prompted by the agency's review of Toyota defect reports and recalls.
A 2002 Toyota technical service bulletin being looked at by congressional investigators cited “engine surging” in the Camry and recommended calibration of the engine control module, or ECM.
“Calibrating the ECM -- that's electronics,” Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said in an interview last week. He chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight.
The 2002 Camry has not been recalled.
Stupak said lawmakers “aren't buying” Toyota's denials of electronic interference.
The focus of NHTSA's investigation echoes that of some congressional inquiries.
Last month, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Henry Waxman, asked Toyota and NHTSA for records dating back to 2000.
Toyota's private meetings with committee staff about unintended acceleration “left important questions unanswered, including when Toyota learned about this serious safety defect and what actions the company took to investigate and resolve the hazard,” wrote Waxman, D-Calif.
This month, the House Oversight Committee asked why its recall of Tacoma pickup trucks was limited to vehicles with possible floor mat entrapment despite numerous complaints from Tacoma drivers with no floor mats in their cars.
In addition, NHTSA has said it is conducting a standard review of power-steering complaints involving 2009-10 Corollas after an Automotive News report said there were 83 complaints, 76 of which described a loss of control at speeds of more than 40 mph.
The Oversight Committee has scheduled a Feb. 24 hearing at which LaHood is to testify. The energy panel is slated to have a hearing the next day.