The federal agency with the key responsibility to investigate consumer complaints of sudden acceleration problems in Toyotas was too lenient in dealing with the carmaker and lacked the expertise to analyze the car's electronic controls, according to congressional investigators.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, known as NHTSA, "lacked the expertise" and conducted only "cursory and ineffective investigations" into the "highly dangerous problem" of sudden, unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles, according to a preliminary investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released today. The committee is holding a hearing on sudden acceleration in Toyotas on Tuesday.
NHTSA officials told committee staff that the agency has "no electrical engineers or software engineers on staff" and in one e-mail the government's principal investigator told Toyota the company could "disregard" some of their "agenda item" requests because "I'm not very knowledgeable on this system."
Following a review of thousand of internal Toyota documents and e-mails, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D.-Mich., chairman of the Investigative Subcommittee, outlined the critical questions they will pose to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in the hearing, which begins at 11 a.m. tomorrow.
And in a separate letter to James Lentz, head of Toyota's U.S. operations, also scheduled to testify tomorrow, the congressmen accused Toyota executives of "making misleading public statements" about the effectiveness of the recall remedies of fixing sticky pedals and floor mats.
Instead, Toyota's general counsel told the committee that a sticky pedal "typically…does not translate into a sudden, high speed acceleration event."
And in studying internal documents turned over to the committee, investigators found Toyota personnel identified floor mats as the cause of only 16 percent of the sudden unintended acceleration incident reports.
Congressional Hearings on Toyota Tomorrow
Instead, Waxman and Stupak allege, the company "consistently dismissed the possibility that electronic failures" could be responsible for thousands of consumer complaints of unintended acceleration.
Toyota failed to conduct a "systematic investigation of unintended acceleration" and instead relied on a "flawed engineering report", hastily commissioned just two months ago.
Earlier this month, after Lentz told ABC News he was confident that "there are no electronic problems" with Toyota vehicles and that the problem had been completely fixed with the recalls, Waxman said that in private, Toyota executives had told his staff they still don't know what caused all of the runaway cars.
"I want to know what caused the problem, and I don't just want a statement because their statements seem to be at variance from what they've said publicly and what they've said privately," said Waxman.