By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A scientific panel backed a U.S. government finding that electronic software played no role in sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles, but the group questioned the ability of regulators to investigate similar, complex cases on their own in the future without improving their technical expertise.
The National Research Council's Transportation Research Board report released on Wednesday effectively concluded the sweeping federal investigation into the recalls of 8 million Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks in 2009 and 2010.
"I think it does close the book. I think it sustains the work that we did and verifies the work that we did," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on the sidelines of a conference in Washington.
LaHood sought the independent report from academic, industry, scientific and regulatory experts as a follow-up to the overarching Toyota investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with help from technical experts at NASA.
NHTSA came under fire in 2010 from Congress and consumer and safety groups, who complained that it for years underreacted to complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and pressed for recalls only after a deadly California crash and other questions surfaced about oversight.
NHTSA investigators tied sudden acceleration recalls to loose floormats that could jam the accelerator and gas pedals that did not spring back as designed. However, questions persisted about whether potential faults in Toyota electronic throttles were also a factor.
NHTSA and NASA subsequently determined jointly last February that throttles played no role in the Toyota case and said driver error would likely explain most sudden acceleration incidents beyond the already identified equipment and mechanical flaws.
The conclusion spared Toyota from the possibility of new recalls and additional questions about the safety of its products.
The Research Council review supported the thoroughness and conclusions of the joint agency investigation based on the information that was available to analyze.
"The committee finds NHTSA's decision to close its investigation justified on the basis of the agency's initial defect investigations, which were corroborated by its follow-up analyses of thousands of consumer complaints, examinations of event data recorders in vehicles suspected to have crashed because of unintended acceleration, and the results of NASA's study," the research council members said in their final report.
But the scientific group did not dismiss the possibility of safety related glitches occurring in electronic systems now ubiquitous in car design industrywide, saying such events would leave no evidence that they occurred.
Moreover, the researchers said it was troubling that NHTSA could not answer questions about sudden acceleration without outside help and said it was crucial it develop the expertise to do so on its own.
"As more complex and interacting electronics systems are deployed, the prospect that vehicle electronics will be suspected and possibly implicated in unsafe vehicle behaviors increases," the panel said.
The group recommended that NHTSA convene a standing technical committee to advise on issues involving electronics and review its technological needs for new resources.
Toyota did not address the research council findings directly, but said in a statement the group's work was valuable.
The company said it would work with regulators and Congress to address the report's recommendations to strengthen NHTSA understanding of vehicle systems and its oversight of the industry.
The panel also supported NHTSA's efforts to make electronic recording devices mandatory on all new cars and trucks and its research on new accelerator pedal designs and keyless ignitions. All were factors in the Toyota investigation.
Toyota still faces hundreds of lawsuits in the recall cases.
(Reporting By John Crawley; editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Andre Grenon)