Chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Commerce Committee, Science and Transportation, opened its own hearings related to the recall of Toyota vehicles that could be subject to possible incidences of unintended acceleration. While a good deal of what was addressed today mirrored last-week's hearings before two committees in the House of Representatives, there were several new areas touched upon in questions put to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief David Strickland as well as to three top Toyota execs, including Takeshi Uchiyamada and Shinichi Sasaki, both executive vice presidents of Toyota Motor Corporation and Yoshimi Inaba, President and Chief Operating Officer of Toyota Motor North America, who had also addressed the earlier House hearings.

In the day's first session, Rockefeller and the committee members alternately queried and chided LaHood and Strickland about ways in which the agency's current and future policies, practices and areas of authority could best be organized to enhance the level of confidence consumers can have in their vehicles, regardless of who manufactures them.

During the afternoon session, the Toyota executives again offered apologies, reiterated the host of sweeping internal changes the company is currently enacting to place renewed emphasis to all aspects of safety, and further expanded on a commitment to work even more directly with Toyota Motor North America and NHTSA in an efforts to regain its formerly stellar reputation. Inaba also revealed that the company has asked former transportation secretary Rodney Slater to head a new independent North American Quality Advisory Panel that will have input on a wide range of safety and quality issues. This group of experts will also examine the findings of Toyota's internal testing on its electronic throttle control system as well as the subsequent evaluation done by the outside engineering firm of Exponent, Inc., which also found no defect in the Toyota throttle system.

However, many of the responses the execs provided to questions that ranged from who knew what and when to specifics regarding corporate policy on the use and accessibility of crash data stored in onboard "black box" records left the committee -- and Chairman Rockefeller in particular -- feeling frustrated by the lack of explicit details as well as by information that literally got lost in translation.

Like the House hearings, this was only the opening round in what is destined to be a far longer investigation/recommendation process. In his closing comments, Rockefeller stressed that Toyota needs to be even more aggressive in its commitment to quality and open communication. He also indicated that he favored enacting a good deal more comprehensive safety legislation. Topping his to-do list are laws that would mandate brake override systems on all vehicles and demand that automakers provide dealers with the hardware/software they need to easily access information in on-board data recorders. He also hoped to require senior executives at auto companies to certify that all information provided to NHTSA is 100-percent correct and accurate.

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