Congress Rips NHTSA A New One Over Toyota Debacle

Following this weekend’s revelation that Toyota bigwigs were bragging to each other about saving $100 million by convincing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to drop an investigation into a recall of the company’s Camry and Lexis vehicles, Congressmen Henry Waxman, Chair of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce and Bart Stupak, Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, broke out their typewriters to voice their opinions in no uncertain terms to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The letter begins by taking exception with NHTSA’s lack of technical expertise:

First, NHTSA appears to lack the expertise needed to evaluate defects in vehicle electronic controls. In recent years, vehicles have made increasing use of sophisticated electronic controls. According to some accounts, autos now contain more computer code than some fighter jets, nearing 100 million lines of code. Yet, NHTSA officials told the Committee staff that the agency does not employ any electrical engineers or software engineers. As a result, NHTSA appears to lack the technical expertise necessary to analyze whether incidents of sudden unintended acceleration are caused by defects in the cars’ electronic systems.

The note then goes on to cast aspersion on the NHTSA’s interest in investigating complaints, calling the Administration’s response, “seriously deficient.”

Since 2000, NHTSA has received 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration, as well as six defect petitions requesting investigations. Despite these warnings, NHTSA conducted only one cursory investigation in 2004 into the possibility that defects in electronic controls could be responsible for these incidents. This investigation was led by Scott Yon, who informed Toyota in an e-mail that he was “not very knowledgeable” about the electronic throttle control system used in Toyota vehicles. This investigation was marred by highly questionable assumptions and was closed after the agency failed to identify a defect trend.

But the Congressmen’s vitriol wasn’t targeted solely at the NHTSA. They also sent a separate letter to James Lentz, President & COO of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., saying that their review of documents turned over to the Committee, “appear to show that Toyota consistently dismissed the possibility that electronic failures could be responsible for incidents of sudden unintended acceleration.”

The note details how, in June 2004, the NHTSA alerted Toyota to research showing that Toyota Camrys with electronic throttle controls had over 400% more “vehicle speed” complaints than Camrys with manual controls.

“Yet, despite these warnings, Toyota appears to have conducted no systematic investigation into whether electronic defects could lead to sudden unintended acceleration,” reads the letter.

The countdown is now on to Wednesday morning’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform. Toyota’s President and CEO, Akio Toyoda, has accepted an invite from the Committee to speak with them. However, it remains to be seen whether or not he will respond to their questions candidly or remain quiet on all matters that could someday come back to haunt his company in the courtroom.

Chairmen Send Letters to Secretary LaHood and President of Toyota USA Prior to Hearing [Committee on Energy & Commerce]