WASHINGTON Recalls and other safety questions engulfing Toyota Motor Corp could prompt Congress to strengthen U.S. government tools for overseeing the industry, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday.
Henry Waxman, chairman of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, told a hearing on Toyota that highway safety regulators do not have the expertise to properly evaluate sophisticated engineering systems in today's vehicles.
"Ultimately, I believe addressing this problem will require legislation," Waxman said. "Carmakers have entered the electronics era but the (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) seems stuck in a mechanical mind-set."
Automakers are watching the Toyota developments very closely to see if the saga prompts new congressional or regulatory action.
Waxman's committee on Monday sharply criticized NHTSA's handling of consumer complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus models, particularly persistent reports over the years alleging problems with software-driven electronic throttles.
Toyota says its throttles are sound and no NHTSA review has found any problems with them. Jim Lentz, the company's U.S. sales chief, said at the hearing that Toyota is in the midst of an outside review of those systems.
But Waxman said regulators have lacked the necessary resources to "critically assess Toyota's insistence that its vehicles could not fail."
The panel's investigation found that NHTSA's staff does not include electrical or software engineers, Waxman said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"We need to make sure the federal safety agency has the tools and resources it needs to ensure the safety of the electronic controls and onboard computers that run today's automobiles," Waxman told witnesses at the hearing.
LaHood said NHTSA is adding staff and disputed the committee's finding that the agency did not have electrical engineering expertise. However, he told Waxman that the Transportation Department may be "asking for some legislative remedies."
He was not specific but did say it would help NHTSA if automakers were required to report to U.S. regulators their safety problems in other countries.
LaHood also said the government should consider a potential industry mandate for systems that would allow brakes to override the throttle in cases of runaway acceleration.
NHTSA is reviewing electronics in Toyota vehicles as well as those made by other manufacturers. It is consulting outside experts and Toyota.
"We're going to do a complete review of electronics," LaHood told lawmakers at the hearing. "We're going to get into the weeds on the electronics. We feel an obligation to do that."
NHTSA is a relatively small agency that oversees auto safety and fuel efficiency standards.
It opens about 100 safety investigations annually and has broad powers that critics say are not always used fully. NHTSA receives about 30,000 complaints a year.
The agency relies on nudging industry into "voluntary" recalls rather than forcing action. It's tougher stance with Toyota in 2009 and this year prompted big recalls for unintended acceleration related to floor mats that can be trapped by the accelerator and gas pedals that do not spring back as designed.
LaHood said he did not believe NHTSA needed expanded authority from Congress to force recalls.
The last major auto safety legislation authorized by Congress toughened industry defect reporting requirements following the 2001 Firestone tire debacle associated with deadly rollovers of Ford Motor Co SUVs.
Over the past three years, NHTSA's defect and compliance investigations have led to 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles, transportation officials said.
(Reporting by John Crawley, editing by Matthew Lewis)