WASHINGTON – Momentum is building for a rule requiring automakers to install brake override systems so drivers could stop their cars during incidents of sudden acceleration, which has been blamed in the deaths of more than 50 people in accidents involving Toyota vehicles nationwide.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem Tuesday, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., said “strong legislative action,” including mandates for brake overrides, is needed to protect motorists. Rockefeller, the committee chairman, also called for requiring senior company executives to personally certify that information provided to regulators is “100 percent correct and accurate.”
The Department of Transportation is also considering a rule to mandate an override system.
“We think it is a good safety device and we’re trying to figure out if we should be recommending that,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told members of the committee.
At the hearing, senators slammed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – overseen by LaHood’s department – for not identifying serious safety problems with Toyota vehicles earlier, saying that the agency does not have enough technical expertise to handle increasingly complex auto electronics systems and questioning whether government officials are too cozy with the industry they oversee.
Senators also publicly chastised three Toyota executives who testified later for not responding more aggressively to the sudden acceleration complaints.
But even with another round of apologies from company executives, Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota Motor Corp.’s executive vice president in charge of quality assurance and customer service, suggested that sudden acceleration was caused by driver error, such as improperly placed floor mats.
“We need to do more to consider customer expectations and real-world usage of our vehicles, even irregular use,” he said. “We need to reduce the number of things we ask our customers to do correctly.”
Toyota’s top U.S. official, Yoshimi Inaba, told the Senate panel that the automaker would install a brake override system on all new cars off the assembly line starting late this year.
In addition, he said, Toyota would put the safeguard on seven existing models as part of its recalls. It also is considering extending the fail safe to other models in the recalls, but has not yet determined which vehicles can receive the upgrade.
“Toyota will be one of the first full-line automakers to make brake override systems standard,” Inaba said.
He did not address the question of whether the feature would be added to all Toyota models already on the road that have electronic throttle, millions of which are not included in the recalls.
The brake override feature, sometimes called a “smart pedal,” is not new technology.
Mercedes Benz started using it more than six years ago. Since then Nissan, Volkswagen, Porsche and Chrysler have adopted the fail safe on most, if not all, of their vehicles. BMW is already implementing the second generation of brake override software in its vehicles.
Ford and General Motors also have it on some models, but until the current crisis, Toyota did not use it on any of its Scion, Toyota or Lexus vehicles.