WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators have purchased and will test the Lexus ES 350 once owned by a Tennessee woman whose testimony this week in Congress personalized allegations of unintended acceleration in Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T)(TM.N) vehicles.
The Transportation Department said on Friday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would conduct the evaluation at its research center in Ohio, but seek outside expertise, if necessary.
Rhonda Smith told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday the luxury sedan suddenly accelerated out of control for six miles while she was headed to Knoxville in October 2006.
“I lost all control of the acceleration of the vehicle,” Smith said in her testimony, adding that the model year 2007 car reached a top speed of 100 miles per hour before slowing.
A local dealer could not find any problems, Smith said.
An investigator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) examined the vehicle and suspected the problem was related to floor mats that can jam the accelerator, according to a 2007 NHTSA report on the incident.
The report said that the unsecured heavy rubber all-weather mat rested atop the factory installed carpet mat, a point NHTSA said later could cause it to move forward unintentionally.
The NHTSA report also said a follow-up demonstration at a service bay showed how the loose all-weather mat could jam a fully depressed accelerator when placed just 2 inches forward of its intended location.
Smith it would have taken a “magic trick” for the heavy mat to slide forward enough to jam the pedal, and said she and her husband were not shown that the mat could slide forward accidentally.
A follow up test drive found no problems with drive systems, NHTSA said.
Smith’s vehicle was among the models included in a Toyota recall of 55,000 floor mats that was carried out several months after the alleged mishap. Regulators and the company warned that loose mats could be jammed by the accelerator.
A second, much larger floor mat-related recall in October 2009 was triggered by renewed government scrutiny after a Lexus crash in California last August that killed four people.
Smith said her husband inspected the car after her incident and found nothing unusual with the accelerator. She insists the mats are not to blame and that the vehicle’s electronic throttle system should be examined closely.
NHTSA did not perform tests on electronics and the car was later sold to an owner who drove it for 27,000 miles and reported no acceleration problems, the Transportation Department said.
Regulators believe floor mats are linked to at least five U.S. crash deaths, with 29 other consumer reports under review alleging fatalities associated with unintended acceleration.
U.S. regulators and Toyota are again looking into whether there are problems with electronic throttles. Toyota executives this week said that those systems have been tested exhaustively and are sound. NHTSA found no problems in previous reviews.
But Congress in two hearings this week questioned whether regulators probed hard enough on unintended acceleration over the years and whether NHTSA has the expertise to handle investigations into the sophisticated electronic systems equipped in today’s vehicles.
“NHTSA will thoroughly examine the Smith’s car as we work to get to the bottom of possible causes for sudden acceleration,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
The Senate Commerce Committee plans to examine the issue at as part of a hearing on Toyota recalls on Tuesday.
On Friday, the panel added Toyota vice president Takeshi Uchiyamada, considered the father of the hybrid Prius, to its witness list. LaHood, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, Toyota North American President Yoshimi Inaba and Toyota quality control chief Shinichi Sasaki are also scheduled to appear. (Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Carol Bishopric)