NASA will help probe Toyota accelerators
Carmaker also convenes safety panel, vows new commitment to customers

WASHINGTON - Auto safety regulators said on Tuesday they will tap the expertise of the country's top space and aeronautics experts to analyze Toyota Motor Corp's electronic throttles to see if they are behind the reports of unintended acceleration that have hounded the automaker.

The news that NASA scientists will join the probe came as Toyota, reeling from a recall crisis sparked by the acceleration reports, launched a task force aimed at regaining consumer trust and pledged to give its regional operations more clout to speed up decisions on quality issues.

"We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview with Reuters.

The Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is just beginning its review of Toyota's electronic throttles, which have come under heightened scrutiny following the recall of millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the past six months for unintended acceleration.

Criticism of NHTSA behind move
While the government and the Japanese automaker blame mechanical or equipment flaws for the problem, questions have been raised about whether NHTSA over the years adequately handled investigations into motorist and other complaints of possible electronic throttle problems.

Critics have said NHTSA, which at the time of congressional hearings last month on the Toyota issue only had two electrical engineers on its staff, lacked the expertise and resources to assess the company's claims that its vehicles could not fail.

The Transportation Department inspector general is investigating NHTSA's and Toyota's handling of investigations into unintended acceleration. LaHood said the department watchdog would also determine whether NHTSA has appropriate staffing and expertise to handle sophisticated investigations.

Nine NASA scientists would bring expertise in electronics, electromagnetic interference, software integrity and complex problem solving to the Toyota review, Transportation Department officials said.

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LaHood has maintained that NHTSA could handle the analysis itself, but said suggestions from lawmakers at congressional hearings prompted him to consider outside help.

"We've used them before. We've heard that they may have some influence," LaHood said of his decision to ask NASA to help.

The NHTSA review is to be completed by late summer, after which the highway traffic safety agency would then determine whether a formal investigation of Toyota throttles was warranted. Such a probe would set in motion a process that could lead to a recall.

LaHood said the timetable would not likely change unless "something very dramatic" happened with the NASA work.

Other investigations dating to 2004 found no throttle defect, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handled those cases internally.

Meanwhile in Japan on Tuesday, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, who was criticized for not acting quickly enough when the automaker's safety issues first came to light earlier this year, convened a 50-member committee on quality at the automaker's headquarters.

It marked the first meeting of Toyota's newly named regional quality officers and came at a crucial time as the world's largest automaker attempts to recapture lost sales momentum in key markets including the United States.

"We need a renewed commitment to placing customers first and to reviewing all our work processes from the customers' perspective," Toyoda, who chairs the committee, said ahead of the meeting.

In a departure from past practice, chief quality officers assigned in six designated regions will have a say when headquarters makes decisions on safety issues, in an effort to better reflect customer needs gleaned in local markets.

Third-party experts in each region, including one in North America headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, will assess the steps Toyota has taken to renew its focus on quality and safety.

The initial review results are due to be released in June, Toyota said.

Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million vehicles globally in recent months. Those recalls take aim at accelerator pedals that can become stuck with condensation, pedals that can be held down by floor mats and a braking glitch on its latest Prius and other new hybrids.

The quality slippage has highlighted the pressure on Toyota's stretched work force as it scrambled to keep up with soaring demand for its popular cars in the past decade.

Toyota will also expand the use in North America of event data recorders, which can record data on vehicle condition and driver operations, and work with authorities in other markets to better analyze the causes of accidents.

While a sales suspension of recalled models hit Toyota's U.S. sales hard in February, demand is expected to soar on incentives this month, leaving analysts uncertain as to how deeply the recalls will actually damage Toyota's business.