WASHINGTON -- A Senate Commerce Committee review found that federal probes of Toyota vehicles have shied away from examination of electronic defects as a possible cause of unintended acceleration, the committee chairman said today.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s lack of electrical-engineering expertise has caused it to focus instead on floor-mat entrapment and other simpler explanations for loss of speed control.
“NHTSA investigators would rather focus on floor mats than microchips because they’re more familiar with floor mats,” Rockefeller told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at today’s hearing. “They don’t understand microchips. I feel that very strongly.”
Rockefeller said the committee staff’s review of thousands of pages of NHTSA documents showed that the first U.S. consumer complaint about unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles occurred in 2003.
“The record clearly shows your folks stayed away from microchips,” Rockefeller said.
NHTSA has conducted at least half a dozen investigations of Toyota acceleration problems since 2004, and none found defects in the electronic throttle-control system.
Those findings have lent support to Toyota’s longstanding position that electronic throttle control sensors have not interfered with acceleration in its vehicles.
A 2007 NHTSA investigation that took a brief look at Toyota electronics resulted in the recall of 55,000 floor mats.
“I don’t know if NHTSA turned a blind eye because it didn’t understand microchips or electronics,” said LaHood, who became Transportation Secretary in early 2009. “But I know this: We’re going to get to the bottom of electronics.”
LaHood has said NHTSA has only two electrical engineers but hopes to hire more.
The Transportation Department is conducting a general scientific inquiry into the possibility that electronic systems can interfere with vehicle acceleration. Based on its findings, the agency may focus on specific automakers and models, LaHood said.
Since October, Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide for unintended acceleration. It has attributed safety defects in these vehicles to floor-mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals.
Toyota has hired the Exponent consulting firm to look at the effect of the automaker’s electronic throttle-control system on acceleration. A House committee last week criticized the firm’s preliminary study for using too small a sample size of vehicles and for a lack of scientific rigor.