As smug as Toyota has been in declaring recent allegations of sudden-acceleration in its cars unfounded, it's wild to see U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announcing Tuesday that none other than NASA will be helping federal officials find the root cause of the carmarker's problems (and, although bad P.R. moves might be one issue, the focus will be technical).
"We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration," said LaHood. "For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening. And that is why we are tapping the best minds around."
For a guy who helped muddy the investigation of a runaway Prius claim earlier this month, it's surprising to see that he's putting the nation's best engineers and scientists on the case.
After Prius driver James Sikes called 911 to report his car was accelerating out-of-control on an eastern San Diego county highway, a California Highway Patrol unit spotted the vehicle with smoke coming from its brakes and helped guide it to a stop.
San Diego County congressman Darrell Issa, who has counted on the campaign support of the auto industry in the past, insisted that a layman from his office observe the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's investigation of the vehicle, and Issa let him have his way. Toyota was also allowed to to conduct a concurrent inquiry. Issa then leaked Toyota's spin on the incident -- that the car was functioning normally and that Sikes' claims needed to be called into question. Nice.
As we said, next time we get in big trouble -- the Torrance-based carmaker is facing more than 50 lawsuits over sudden-acceleration claims that could be heard in Los Angeles -- we'd like to conduct our own investigation with the blessing of a congressman too.
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So it's strange to see LaHood admitting that there might be more at work here than the stuck pedals and improperly installed floor mats that Toyota claims are the sole causes of the sudden acceleration incidents (not to mention driver error or, in Sikes case, possible lying).
LaHood has even put the National Academy of Sciences on the case -- and $3 million worth of work will be "peer reviewed" by other academics. Good work. It's about time. It's not like an auto-industry backed congressman and Toyota's own engineers have horses in the race, right? We trust the scientists.
"We are bringing the best minds and talents to resolve this issue," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "We will not rest until we have identified and addressed any potential vehicle-related causes of unintended acceleration."