The Obama administration is considering requiring all cars and trucks sold in the U.S. to have brakes that can override gas pedals to prevent sudden acceleration problems like those that led to reports of deaths and the recall of millions of Toyotas, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress on Tuesday.
"We're looking at it," LaHood told the Senate Commerce Committee. "We think it is a good safety device."
The panel's chairman suggested "strong legislative action" was needed, including brake overrides, which would require a relatively inexpensive software upgrade.
The comments came as the government raised to 52 the number of reported deaths linked to runaway Toyota vehicles and as Toyota executives returned to Capitol Hill for the third time in a week to try to persuade lawmakers they are urgently fixing any problems.
The executives said the automaker will start making available to U.S. safety regulators sophisticated electronic readers capable of deciphering "black box" data on Toyotas involved in sudden acceleration episodes.
Yoshimi Inaba, the president of Toyota Motor North America, said the company would be delivering three data readers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday and hoped to make the data more accessible to other systems by the middle of 2011.
A reliable override system could be important to U.S. motorists, relieving anxieties created by the Toyota acceleration reports. The "black box" information could help investigators make their own judgments about what has been going wrong.
Multiple 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. Since September, Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles — about 6 million in the U.S.
There was a fresh indication Tuesday of how the broad recalls and safety questions have affected Toyota's business. The company's U.S. sales fell 9 percent in February while rivals General Motors and Ford posted healthy gains. As part of its effort to rebuild customer loyalty, the company said it will offer repeat buyers two years of free maintenance.
The giant Japanese automaker has said all new models sold in the United States will have the override system by 2011 and that many recalled vehicles will be refitted with it.
The system automatically deactivates the accelerator when the brake pedal is pressed, allowing the driver to stop safely even if the car's throttle is stuck open.
LaHood told the committee, "We are looking at the possibility of recommending the brake override system in all, newly manufactured automobiles." He was responding to a questions by Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on whether the U.S. should mandate such a system on all cars sold in the U.S.
Rockefeller said the Toyota recalls required "strong legislative action." He suggested mandating brake override systems, upgrades to a 2000 auto safety law enacted after the Firestone tire recalls and requiring all automakers to share black-box hardware with dealers.
"The U.S. government has to do a much better job of keeping the American people safe," he said.
As to Toyota, Rockefeller told the executives, "Every single Toyota owner deserves a full accounting of what happened and what went wrong."
The new number of 52 reported deaths -- up from 34 previously -- came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation. Federal officials haven't formally confirmed the links between deaths and Toyota defects but have received a spike in complaints since Toyota began a series of big recalls in October.
Toyota executives told the panel the company will give the United States up to 100 "black box" readers and dispatch its engineers to train U.S. technicians on how to use them.
The recording devices, similar to the ones that have long been on aircraft, are common safety features on modern automobiles. But the ones on Toyotas can be read only by Toyota technicians with specialized readers.
As they had told congressional panels last week, Toyota executives maintained that sudden unintended acceleration episodes were due to mechanical problems — shifting floor mats or sticking gas pedals — and not by anything in the electronic throttle control systems of Toyota vehicles.
Still, the company "will continue to search for any event in which such a failure could occur," the lawmakers were told by Takeshi Uchiyamada, an executive vice president at Toyota considered the father of the Prius hybrid.
Safety experts and many lawmakers have said the electronic systems of Toyotas could be to blame and should not be ruled out.
The Toyota executives said the company was setting up an outside panel to advise the company's North American affiliates on quality and safety issues, to be led by Rodney Slater, a U.S. transportation secretary during the Clinton administration.
While most members criticized Toyota, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said other automakers have been subject to millions of recalls, too.For instance, in 2002, he noted, quoting NHTSA figures, 15.2 million cars were recalled. General Motors recalls totaled 4.6 million, Ford 2.3 million, Chrysler 6.4 million and Toyota just 496,000
"If it is an industry problem, we should hear from the industry, instead of just Toyota," Inouye said.
Adding to Toyota's woes, the automaker 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. NHTSA also continues to look into steering complaints from drivers of Corollas.
The committee released a January 2008 document in which Chris Tinto, a Toyota vice president for technical and regulatory affairs, raised questions about the company's safety image. "Although we rigorously defend our products through good negotiation and analysis, we have a less defensible product," Tinto said.
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