Congress wants answers to questions of Toyota safety

Congressional investigators are escalating their probe of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles by examining whether sudden acceleration afflicts models that have not been recalled ? and whether all Toyota vehicles should be modified so that their brakes override out-of-control throttles.

The increased scrutiny comes as regulators in Japan and the U.S. have launched inquiries into reports that brakes on the company’s Prius hybrid are slow to respond. A Prius controversy would be particularly thorny for Toyota, which has used the hybrid to hone its image as a maker of environmentally friendly and technologically advanced autos.

“The Prius is their poster child for corporate responsibility,” said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto research firm Edmunds Inc.

Also Wednesday, Toyota dealers in Southern California began receiving parts to fix sticky gas pedals, which the automaker has blamed for some of the sudden-acceleration problems, and a California legislator said he would propose that state lawmakers stop buying Toyotas for their vehicle pool.

Toyota’s stock plunged after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a congressional hearing, appeared to warn owners not to drive recalled vehicles. LaHood later said he misspoke. He meant to caution people to avoid operating vehicles that have exhibited a rough or sticky gas pedal and recommended that owners get their cars fixed quickly.

The chairman of a congressional committee that plans a hearing on the recall next week sent a letter to Toyota Wednesday asking whether it was safe to drive recalled models and whether the sudden acceleration problems affect other Toyota vehicles.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked about similar problems in the Toyota Tacoma truck. He said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 100 complaints about sudden acceleration in the Tacoma, which does not have the same accelerator pedal assembly as the recalled models.

The Los Angeles Times reported Nov. 29 that the average number of sudden acceleration complaints involving the Tacoma increased dramatically after Toyota introduced electronic throttles on the truck in 2005. Towns also cited some complaints in which faulty floor mats, which sparked a Toyota recall last year, did not appear to be the cause.

“What would explain episodes such as this, where drivers are experiencing an uncontrollable acceleration and, reportedly, no floor mats are present in the vehicle (or they reported the floor mat was not involved),” Towns wrote.

Toyota said last year that it will install a brake override in vehicles it has recalled to prevent the risk of floor mats entrapping the gas pedal; Towns asked whether Toyota was considering installing override on all its vehicles.

Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., asked Toyota why the automaker’s recall announcements came “at least two years” after it had learned of sudden acceleration problems.

He also asked about a Nov. 8 Los Angeles Times article reporting that Toyota “did not disgorge” all of the complaints about sudden accelerations problems it knew of when the data was requested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

LaHood said that the NHTSA “will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.”

LaHood said he intended to speak directly with Toyota President Akio Toyoda “very soon” to make sure the company gets the message from the U.S. government that the company needs to take aggressive action to resolve the sudden acceleration problems.

“This is serious. This is very serious,” LaHood said. Toyota is doing everything now to correct the problem, he added, “but we’re going to keep the pressure on them.”

Toyota said Wednesday that unless people are experiencing problems with their vehicle, the autos are safe to drive.

“Our message to Toyota owners is this: If you experience any issues with your accelerator pedal, please contact your dealer without delay,” the company said in a statement. “If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive.”

The company began fixing the recalled vehicles Wednesday.

Keyes Toyota in Van Nuys, Calif., said it planned to fix between 30 and 50 Camrys and Corollas as well as some cars in the dealership’s inventory. Roughly 6,000 to 8,000 customers in the area are affected by the recall, said service director John Williams.

The pedal fixes began as new problems with the Prius surfaced.

In Japan, the Transport Ministry said it has received 14 complaints about the brakes on the new-generation Prius, which was introduced last year.

Complaints about Prius brakes could be an issue with people’s unfamiliarity with the feel of some hybrid braking systems, which take the energy from braking and cycle it back into the drivetrain, said Rebecca Lindland, director of the autos group for IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm.

Toyota’s massive recall might have made Toyota owners more sensitive to perceived glitches, she said.

“Brakes do feel differently in a hybrid because of the regeneration process. People need to recognize that these brakes sometimes feel different,” Lindland said.

Daniel Yaghoubzadeh, a San Diego law school student, said he has had problems with a leased 2010 Prius.

“Shortly after I realized that the car sometimes accelerates when I depress the brake pedal instead of slowing down, I took the car into the service department. … They pretty much didn’t believe me,” he said.

The cascading recalls and probes are starting to take their toll on Toyota.

“Toyota seems acutely vulnerable to this because of the very essence of the brand which is reliability durability and quality. This goes to the heart of that reputation,” said Anwyl of Edmunds.

Toyota shares closed Wednesday at $73.49, down $4.69, or 6 percent. The stock has lost 20 percent of its value since the Jan. 19 sticky gas pedal recall, representing a $30 billion loss in market value.

In another development, California state Assemblyman Ted Lieu, a Democrat, said he will ask the Rules Committee Thursday to re-institute a “Buy-American” policy when purchasing pool vehicles that the house’s 80 members use to get around Sacramento.

“With the massive safety problems that Toyota is experiencing, I think it’s an appropriate time to back to the Buy-American policy,” he said.

Lieu’s district is home to Toyota’s North American sales headquarters.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.