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U.S. officials may share hot seat with Toyota

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U.S. officials may share hot seat with Toyota

The hot seats at the congressional grillings of Toyota Motor Corp. brass, set to begin today on Capitol Hill, aren't just reserved for the Japanese automaker's executives.

Expanding investigations into sudden unintended acceleration complaints and suspect brakes on Prius hybrids are beginning to depict government bureaucrats charged with ensuring the nation's vehicle safety as slow, indecisive, technically ill-equipped and too willing to give Toyota the benefit of the doubt.

Even worse, the record assembled by congressional investigators describes nearly a decade of sudden-acceleration complaints with Toyota vehicles -- long before the Bush administration paved the way for its successor, Team Obama, to bail out Detroit and grab controlling stakes in rivals General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

All of which may explain why everyone from the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, to the director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are publicly muscling Toyota: They're playing that time-honored Washington game of "CYA" because the mounting evidence is as damning for the bureaucrats as it appears to be for Toyota.

"Our preliminary assessment is that NHTSA has lacked the expertise needed to address this serious defect and has conducted only cursory and ineffective investigations," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, wrote LaHood on Monday in advance of a hearing today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Since 2000, NHTSA has received 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration, as well as 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."

The key numbers here are a) 2,600 complaints dating back to b) 2000, with the only defect probe being conducted in c) 2004 by an investigator who d) conceded he was "not very knowledgeable" about electronic throttle controls. That should reassure Toyota owners.

Here are a few more numbers, courtesy of committee investigators: Back in 2004, federal regulators produced a chart showing a 400 percent increase in the rate of sudden acceleration complaints in Toyota Camrys equipped with electronic throttle controls compared to the same models with manual throttle controls.

Four more "defect petitions" requesting investigations into sudden acceleration complaints were rejected since the 2004 probe. In late 2007, the nation's largest auto insurer, State Farm, told federal regulators it had detected an increase in sudden acceleration incidents involving Toyota vehicles.

And Toyota, for its part, didn't launch its own study of any potential electronic causes behind the complaints until two months ago. That was long after the death last August of a California state trooper and three members of his family in a runaway Lexus sedan was caught on a chilling audiotape.

Bottom line: There's a whole lot more evidence to explain the pressuring of Toyota by federal regulators than bailout politics, Obama meddling and a chance for the United Auto Workers to settle a score with the mostly anti-union Japanese automaker it loves to hate.

For Toyota, the timing is terrible. The August accident, highlighted by ABC News and others, came barely one month after GM emerged from bankruptcy under effective control of the federal government. Like it or not, Toyota's deepening troubles come as Washington is more attuned to the industry and what its economic contributions mean to the country.

The risk in the evidence isn't Toyota's alone. The hearings threaten to reveal a cozy conviviality between regulators, the regulated and constant negotiation over the rules; to pave the way for tougher, less flexible, more expensive industrywide oversight; to drive a case for expanding NHTSA staff and technical resources.

They also could confirm seething nativist suspicions in Detroit about their federal government's double-standard in favor of Toyota and a pristine image belied, almost daily, by discomfiting reality.

From The Detroit News:


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