Toyota heads up to Capital Hill tomorrow to face the ire of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing that’s been subtly named “Toyota Gas Pedals: Is the Public at Risk?” A memo by committee staff [via the WSJ] sets a paranoid tone for the hearing, as the NHTSA investigation widens beyond gas pedals alone:
Attention is now being focused on the electronic throttle control system (ETC) to determine whether sudden acceleration may be attributable to a software design problem or perhaps to electromagnetic interference. The committee staff found numerous complaints made to NHTSA describing sudden acceleration that was not caused by either floor mats or sticky pedals.
Toyota’s Yoshi Inaba will face the brunt of the questioning, although Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA administrator David Strickland will surely face questions about their oversight of Toyota (or lack thereof).
But Toyota and federal regulators aren’t the only folks being given an opportunity to testify before congress. Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook and Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies, Inc have been added to the docket. And you won’t want to skip past their testimony either, as it promises to be some of the juiciest. A recent PBS Nightly Business Report interview with Claybrook reveals her to be an impassioned advocate of tougher auto industry regulation, and a skeptic about Toyota’s claim that electronic systems are not malfunctioning. Kane is likely to be an equally compelling witness, as his firm recently released a comprehensive report [full document in PDF format here] on Toyota’s ongoing unintended acceleration issues, which includes such nuggets as:
there is ample evidence to suggest that neither Toyota nor NHTSA have identified all of the causes of SUA in Toyota vehicles or all of the vehicles plagued by this problem. Of the 2,262 complaints, about half are from drivers of vehicles that haven’t been recalled. The complaint data also show that replacing a sticking pedal or the floor mat will not resolve the problem… absent a mechanical cause, the automaker and the regulators must look more closely at the vehicle control systems, including the electronic throttle control assembly and the associated sensors.
With Kane and SRS Inc’s report hitting the mainstream media, Toyota is tooling up for what promises to be a full-bore assault along these lines of attack. So it comes as no surprise to hear that Toyota has picked up some K-Street backup, hiring Glover Park Group, who Politico calls “arguably the best-connected Democratic lobbying-communications shop in the capital.” Toyota has also signed the Beltway “powerhouse” firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates to handle damage control.
Meanwhile, the NHTSA might want some PR assistance as well. California Republican Darrel Issa laid into the agency, taking aim at its apparent laxness under Bush administration leadership. “With unresolved complaints documenting incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyota model vehicles as early as 2003, I have serious concerns about the agency’s actions under the previous administration,” Issa said in a statement. Issa claims that documents from the NHTSA show a pattern of dismissing unintended acceleration concerns, reinforcing fears of revolving-door malfeasance at the NHTSA first aired in an ABC News investigation.
Ultimately, there seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence that Toyota has not found a single cause for its unintended acceleration issue and that the NHTSA fared little better. But unintended acceleration is also a mysterious phenomenon, occurring at the intersection of of manufacturer defect and operator error. The likely result will be much congressional harumphing over an issue that might never be conclusively proven. All of which is bad for Toyota and good for competitors like state-owned General Motors and Chrysler. No wonder some are already calling this a “nationalist assault.” Tune in tomorrow for full coverage of the hearing.