World and Nation

House panel criticizes Toyota’s response to accelerator problems

WASHINGTON — Leading Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Monday that Toyota relied on a flawed study in dismissing the notion that computer issues could be at fault for sticking accelerator pedals, and then made misleading statements about the repairs.

The comments, from Henry A. Waxman, the committee’s chairman, and Bart Stupak, a subcommittee chairman, came in an 11-page letter to James E. Lentz III, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. The letter was released on the eve of the committee’s first of three hearings into the Toyota recalls.

Toyota had earlier released more than 75,000 pages of documents, including 20,000 in Japanese, that had been requested by the committee.

The representatives, in a separate letter to the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said they also were concerned about the competency of investigations into Toyota’s problems by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal safety agency.

“It appears that NHTSA lacks the expertise needed to evaluate defects in vehicle electronic controls, and its response to complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles appears to have been seriously deficient,” the letter to LaHood wrote.

Since last fall, Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the U.S. alone — in two separate actions related to complaints that accelerator pedals can become stuck, making it hard to stop the vehicle.

Lentz, who is scheduled to appear before the energy committee on Tuesday, has vigorously defended Toyota, attributing the issue to a faulty part. He expressed certainty that the repairs dealers had begun performing were the correct solution, and maintained that the cars’ computers were not to blame. The company released a study it commissioned from Exponent, a research firm, that said electronics were not to blame.

But in the letter to Lentz, Waxman and Stupak said Toyota had dismissed the idea rather than properly investigate it. Further, it said the six vehicles involved in Exponent’s study, none of which had problems with their electronic systems, was too small a sample to draw a conclusion.

The letter came a day after the disclosure that Toyota estimated that it saved $100 million by negotiating with regulators for a limited recall of 2007 Toyota Camry and Lexus ES models for sudden acceleration, the same problem that has prompted the recent recall.