Toyota to face more scrutiny from Congress

WASHINGTON — Toyota Motor Corp. faces more questions from Congress over its troubled safety record when top company officials testify today at a Senate hearing on the automaker’s huge worldwide recall of 8.5 million vehicles.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold the third congressional hearing in seven days on whether Toyota and federal safety regulators acted swiftly enough to deal with cases of sudden unintended acceleration of the Japanese automaker’s cars and trucks. Three Toyota executives and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are among the witnesses expected Tuesday.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda pledged last week before the House Oversight Committee to be more responsive to driver complaints and safety warnings from the government. Toyoda made a similar promise to improve quality control while apologizing Monday to Chinese Toyota owners.

But the company still faces lingering doubts over the cause of the problems, which it has blamed on gas pedals that can get obstructed by floor mats or stick due to design flaws. Safety experts have said the electronic systems of Toyota vehicles could be to blame. Toyota insists there is no evidence of an electrical cause.

Toyota also said Tuesday it is repairing more than 1.6 million vehicles around the world, including the U.S. and Japan, for potentially leaky oil hoses.

The recalls have damaged Toyota’s reputation and set the stage for large numbers of death and injury lawsuits amid a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission and more scrutiny from the Transportation Department. The government has attributed 34 deaths to alleged sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000. Since September, Toyota has recalled about 6 million vehicles in the U.S.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Transportation Department’s safety agency, is seeking records on Toyota’s recalls and investigating whether electronics were behind the vehicle defects. NHTSA also continues to look into steering complaints from drivers of the popular Corolla model.

Questions remain over whether the recalls have fully addressed the problem. A review conducted by The New York Times found numerous complaints to the government about speed control problems in Toyota Camry sedans not included in the recalls.

The 2002 Camry, for example, was not part of the recall but had about 175 speed control complaints, with about half involving crashes, the Times reported on its Web site Monday night. The 2007 Camry, meanwhile, which was included in the recall, had 200 speed control complaints, with fewer than one-quarter resulting in accidents. The Times analyzed 12,700 complaint records filed in the United States during the past decade.

LaHood will testify with NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, a former Senate Commerce Committee aide. Strickland was invited to testify last week before the House Oversight Committee, but LaHood said he should speak for the department because Strickland had only led NHTSA for a little more than a month.

House Republicans suggested the Transportation Department was trying to shelter Strickland from criticism over the way his agency handled Toyota’s safety record.

The Senate committee will also hear from Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety, which has investigated the Toyota complaints.

Toyota is expected to send three company executives: Yoshi Inaba, Toyota’s North American president; Shinichi Sasaki, a Toyota executive vice president who oversees quality control; and Takeshi Uchiyamada, a Toyota executive vice president who is considered the father of the Prius hybrid.

Inaba planned to tell lawmakers that former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater would lead an independent panel to review changes to the company’s quality control systems. Slater led the Transportation Department from 1997 until January 2001.

Inaba said in remarks planned for delivery Tuesday that Toyota dealers have repaired more than 1 million recalled vehicles.

Toyota has said it plans to conduct an outside review of the company’s operations, provide prompter responses to consumer complaints and improve its communications with the government on safety issues.

The company said last week it would beef up recall-related services for owners with recalled vehicles, including quick scheduling of repairs, having dealers pick up and return vehicles being fixed or providing alternate transportation such as loaners or rental cars.

The Senate committee’s chairman, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, has known Toyota’s founding family since the 1960s and helped land a Toyota engine plant in Buffalo, W.Va., during the 1990s. Rockefeller last month asked the Transportation Department’s Inspector General to conduct an audit of the government’s response to the recalls and has sought information from Toyota, the government and auto insurers.

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