Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Congressional investigators are escalating their probe of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles by examining whether sudden acceleration affects models that have not been recalled -- and whether all Toyota vehicles should be modified so that their brakes override out-of-control throttles.
The increased scrutiny comes as regulators in Japan and the U.S. have launched inquiries into reports that brakes on the company's Prius hybrid are slow to respond. A Prius controversy would be particularly thorny for Toyota, which has used the hybrid to hone its image as a maker of environmentally friendly and technologically advanced autos.
"The Prius is their poster child for corporate responsibility," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto research firm Edmunds Inc.
Also Wednesday, Toyota dealers in Southern California began receiving parts to fix sticky gas pedals, which the automaker has blamed for some of the sudden-acceleration problems, and a California legislator said he would propose that state lawmakers stop buying Toyotas for their vehicle pool.
Toyota's stock plunged after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a congressional hearing, appeared to warn owners not to drive recalled vehicles. LaHood later said he misspoke. He said he meant to caution people to avoid operating vehicles that have exhibited a rough or sticky gas pedal and recommended that owners get their cars fixed quickly.
The head of a congressional committee that plans a hearing on the recall next week sent a letter to Toyota on Wednesday asking whether it was safe to drive recalled models and whether the sudden-acceleration problems affect other Toyota vehicles.
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked about similar problems in the Toyota Tacoma truck. He said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received more than 100 complaints about sudden acceleration in the Tacoma, which does not have the same accelerator pedal assembly as recalled models.
The Times reported Nov. 29 that the average number of sudden-acceleration complaints involving the Tacoma increased dramatically after Toyota introduced electronic throttles on the truck in 2005. Towns also cited some complaints in which faulty floor mats, which sparked a Toyota recall last year, did not appear to be the cause.
"What would explain episodes such as this, where drivers are experiencing an uncontrollable acceleration and, reportedly, no floor mats are present in the vehicle (or they reported the floor mat was not involved)?" Towns wrote.
Toyota said last year that it would install a brake override in vehicles it has recalled to prevent the risk of floor mats' entrapping the gas pedal. Towns asked whether Toyota was considering installing an override on all its vehicles.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) asked Toyota why its announcements came "at least two years" after the automaker had learned of sudden-acceleration problems.
He also asked about a Nov. 8 Times report that Toyota "did not disgorge" all of the complaints about sudden acceleration it knew of when NHTSA had requested the data.
LaHood said NHTSA "will continue to hold Toyota's feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues."
LaHood said he intended to speak directly with Toyota President Akio Toyoda "very soon" to make sure the company got the message from the U.S. government that the company needed to take aggressive action to resolve the sudden-acceleration problems.
"This is serious. This is very serious," LaHood said. Toyota is doing everything now to correct the problem, he added, "but we're going to keep the pressure on them."
Toyota said that unless people were experiencing acceleration problems, the autos were safe to drive.
"Our message to Toyota owners is this: If you experience any issues with your accelerator pedal, please contact your dealer without delay," the company said. "If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive."
The company began fixing the recalled vehicles Wednesday.
Keyes Toyota in Van Nuys said it planned to fix 30 to 50 Camrys and Corollas as well as some cars in the dealership's inventory. As many as 8,000 customers in the area are affected by the recall of 2.3 million vehicles, said service director John Williams.
The pedal fixes began as new problems with the Prius surfaced. In Japan, the Transport Ministry said it had received 14 complaints about the brakes on the new-generation Prius introduced last year.
Complaints about Prius brakes could be an issue with people's unfamiliarity with the feel of some hybrid braking systems, which take the energy from braking and cycle it back into the drivetrain, said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.