Toyota has made "strategic investments" in placing key jobs across the U.S. political landscape and will attempt to cash in on those plays, even if it has little hope of blunting the damage, said Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.
Toyota, for example, has 7,000 jobs in Kentucky, 7,300 in Indiana, 1,000 in West Virginia, 1,800 in Texas and more than 6,000 in California, among other states. Senior leaders representing those states include Republicans such as Sens. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and Democrats such as Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California.
Toyota also has about 1,200 jobs near the district of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a longtime friend of the auto industry.
One indication of the political machinations hitting the committees was a recent query by a news organization asking whether the investigations are part of an Obama administration effort to shore up General Motors, in which the federal government is now the majority share owner.
"After I stopped laughing, I realized this is going to be a challenge," said one staffer, who asked not to be identified. "You know there are going to be people out there who will try to politicize this and make it something it isn't."
But Republicans are also asking tough questions, including Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, the senior Republican on the Towns committee, who founded and built automotive electronics giant Directed Electronics.
"I'm extremely concerned," Issa said about the potential that electronic defects could cause the sudden-acceleration problem in Toyotas. But Issa said he intended to focus his query on the role of NHTSA and its failure to get a handle on the problem sooner. Issa said he doubted that federal regulators had adequately overseen the safety of advanced electronic systems or fully understand what is at stake.
For example, Directed Electronics builds remote starting systems that use hardware and software in vehicles to allow motorists to start an engine hundreds of feet away from the driver's seat. "One of the greatest nightmares we have had in our business is that the car would start in the garage when everybody is asleep," Issa recalled.
Issa also raised questions about whether Bush administration officials exercised adequate oversight during their tenure, and said that former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and former NHTSA administrators Nicole Nason and David Kelly should be called to testify.
Towns' Democratic committee staff, meanwhile, is likely to look at the Toyota Tacoma pickup as a key case study in the hearings, because it does not use the gas pedal that Toyota has said is vulnerable to sticking in other models and yet has a large number of sudden-acceleration reports -- some in which the drivers have said there were no floor mats.
Toyota has told the committee that the Tacoma is among the three models with the most sudden-acceleration complaints, along with the Camry and Lexus ES350.
Another key issue for both committees is likely to be the automaker's decision not to adopt a brake override system, which would automatically cut power to the engine any time a driver's foot is on the brake. A number of other automakers adopted such software as an additional safety measure when they began using electronic throttles over the last decade.
When it recalled seven of its models for floor mats last fall, Toyota said it would reprogram the computers of some of the recalled vehicles to install the software, but in some cases the vehicles' computer systems lacked adequate memory for the new software, the company has told Congress.
The company plans to put the feature on its new vehicles starting late this year, but it has not indicated a plan to install it on most of the millions of Toyotas that are already on the road.