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Transportation Secretary: Electronic Issue Not Cause of Toyota Recall Woes

February 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the investigation into Toyota's recalls of more than 12 million vehicles after thousands of drivers complained of unintended acceleration. LaHood said an investigation showed that electronic flaws do not appear to have been the cause of the problems.
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GWEN IFILL: The government has concluded its investigation of Toyota’s safety problems.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest.

JEFFREY BROWN: It began in August 2004 with a high-speed crash involving a Lexus that left four dead. Over the following months, thousands of drivers complained that their Toyotas were experiencing problems with so-called unintended acceleration, leading eventually to a worldwide recall of more than 12 million vehicles.

The company and investigators focused on mechanical defects involving brake pedals and floor mats, but there were also widespread concerns about potential electronic flaws. The results of a 10-month investigation were released today.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joins us now to discuss it.

Welcome to you.

U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bottom line here is, in your findings, no electronic flaws? Can you say that with confidence?

RAY LAHOOD: Absolutely, no electronic flaws. I will say it that with a lot of confidence.

We — we used the very best safety people we could from NASA. We think these folks really got as far down in the weeds as you could possibly go. And their results are that there was no electronics involved in these accidents.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just — just — I’m parsing sort of a negative here, but couldn’t find an electronic defect or certainty that there isn’t one?

RAY LAHOOD: There was no — there were no electronic defects in the tests that they performed on the cars that they tested.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, so that leave the mechanical defects, the flaws that had been talked about last year, the sticky gas pedals and floor mats. What exactly was the problem with the pedals? And are you confident that — that such problems have been dealt with?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, when we discovered that it was the floor mat, there was a recall, and Toyota fixed that problem. That’s actually what caused the problem in California that brought this to a high level of attention, where four people were killed.

The sticky pedal has been fixed, again, under a recall. People took their cars back in. They put a little — a new little device in. Both of those mechanical failures have been fixed. And people are assured that, because they have been fixed, there should be no problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it goes by this name — it’s a kind of ugly term — pedal misapplication is what I heard at your press briefing today.

RAY LAHOOD: Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that doesn’t imply — we are not talking about driver error?

RAY LAHOOD: Not really.

I mean, but we’re going to look at that. Some people believe that maybe the — the two pedals are aligned pretty closely together in some automobiles. And, look it, our whole approach is data-driven. We look at data and then we make a decision. And then we let people know what that is. We’re going to look at this pedal alignment.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean as a design issue?

RAY LAHOOD: Correct, and see if it’s a problem, not only in Toyotas but in all makes of cars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean, there were huge implications for the larger industry here, especially — right, as more design — as electronics are increasingly part of their design.

RAY LAHOOD: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re still looking at potential new regulations, you said today, including a brake override system for all vehicles.

RAY LAHOOD: Well, when we went up to testify on Capitol Hill, many members of Congress said there ought to be a brake override. Some cars have it now. Some car manufacturers do that.

We’re going to look at that. And we’re going to determine, how costly is it to the manufacturers? Does it really provide the kind of final safety that would be very helpful to somebody if something happened? And we’re going to look at that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you could — but why not go ahead with that now?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, because, again, we’re data-driven. We want to make sure that, when we recommend something to the car manufacturers, it will work. And — and there’s costs involved in this also.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of data, I read today that NHTSA received about 3,000 reports of sudden acceleration incidents involving Toyota cars in all and allegations of 93 deaths but has confirmed five of them.

Where — what exactly do we know after all this time about how many accidents were caused from these defects and how many deaths?

RAY LAHOOD: Unintended acceleration, we know of five deaths from unintended acceleration.

When we get a complaint, we look at it. We don’t just put it over here and say, we will get to it later. We take every complaint seriously. And, again, we are data-driven. And our people do look carefully at these — these complaints and study them, and make sure that they are taken seriously, but five deaths as a result of unintended acceleration.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look back now, was there an overreaction to all this?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, many members of Congress felt that our people needed to really look at the electronics, because I think many members of Congress know that most cars that are made today are pretty much — computers run these automobiles.

And they felt that, listening to their constituents and listening to other people who testified, that perhaps we should look at it. And we did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there was a lot of criticism of Toyota for not acting quickly and responsibly. You, yourself — you were on this program — talked about how you felt they were a little tone-deaf, I think, is the way you put it.

RAY LAHOOD: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your view now of how Toyota has responded?

RAY LAHOOD: Mr. Toyoda has met with me in Washington. I have — I have been to Toyota City and met with Mr. Toyoda. They have just committed $50 million in Detroit, Mich., for a safety facility and a new safety program.

I think their culture has changed. I think they get it. I think they know that we’re serious about safety. American car buyers are serious about safety. And it is a high priority for them now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you think this is done?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, I think the electronics of it are done. There will be a few other things that they will want to look at, like the brake override and a few other things.

But on the electronics, I think I can speak with certainty that our study is — has really shown that there were no electronics involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, thank you very much.

RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Jeffrey.