WASHINGTON — Recalled Toyotas are "not safe," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified Wednesday, and he said that the Japanese automaker had grown "safety deaf" over the years, but was improving now in response to cases of sudden acceleration in its vehicles.
Later, Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for the flaws in his company's cars, which are responsible for at least 34 deaths and a worldwide recall of 8 million vehicles. Both men testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The hearing was only part of another rough day for Toyota; separately, the FBI served search warrants on three U.S.-based Toyota suppliers as part of an antitrust investigation.
"The Antitrust Division is investigating the possibility of anti-competitive cartel conduct of automotive electronic-components suppliers," said Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman. "We are coordinating with the (European Commission) and other foreign competition authorities."
In addition, Japan's transportation minister announced a review of the government's vehicle recall system after discovering that his agency wasn't properly notified about problems with Toyota's Prius hybrid, Japan's Asahi Shimbun national newspaper reported.
LaHood spent most of his time at the hearing defending his department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and its role in investigating consumer complaints about incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
Committee members repeatedly asked whether the agency was too lax in its probe or too cozy with Toyota instead of forcing the carmaker to examine promptly all possible causes of the sudden acceleration.
"We haven’t been sitting around on our hands," LaHood said, noting that the agency receives 30,000 complaints a year. "When people complain, we investigate. When there needs to be a recall, we do it."
When pressed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on whether Toyotas are safe to drive, LaHood said that if a vehicle was listed on the department's Web site it wasn't safe and should be taken to a Toyota dealer for repair.
"I want everybody that has one of those cars to take it to their dealers and make sure that it gets fixed," LaHood said. "And, again, we are going to work 24/7 and we are going to continue until every Toyota is safe for their customers to drive."
In September, Toyota announced a recall of nearly 4 million vehicles in the United States to fix accelerator pedals that could get trapped in floor mats. Last month, the carmaker announced another recall to fix accelerator pedals.
Company CEO Toyoda expressed confidence that the acceleration problems weren't caused by built-in computer systems, even though his company has moved to install a brake override system in some models.
James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said in testimony Tuesday that he couldn't guarantee that the pedal repairs would "totally solve" the acceleration problems.
LaHood said that Toyota, which gained U.S. popularity on the perception that its cars were of higher quality than those made by its Detroit competitors, became "safety deaf" over the years and suffered from poor communications between Toyota's decision-making headquarters in Japan and its U.S. operations.
"They need to listen to one another," LaHood said.
LaHood said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initially was frustrated when it sought answers from Toyota officials, but that things improved after he sent an agency official to Tokyo to talk directly to company officials. LaHood said he'd since had direct talks with Toyoda over the phone.
"We now understand that we must think more from a customer perspective rather than a technical perspective in investigating complaints, and we must communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and regulators," Yoshimi Inaba, the president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America, told the committee.
LaHood said he didn't know whether Toyota would cooperate fully in probing whether faulty electronics were a contributing factor in unintended acceleration.
Wednesday's hearing occurred as the Justice Department and FBI reportedly served warrants on three Toyota suppliers, including a Michigan-based company called DENSO, which makes advanced automotive technology.
Bridgette Gollinger, a spokeswoman with DENSO International America Inc., said the FBI "inspected" the company’s office at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday "in regard to U.S. antitrust laws."
"We are fully cooperating with the investigation," Gollinger said. "This is not related to the Toyota recall." She declined to answer any other questions.
Shefali Cromer, a spokeswoman for Yazaki North America Inc., said the FBI searched their headquarters in Canton, Mich., and branch offices in Lexington, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio.
"The federal authorities did not tell us the nature of their investigation and the search warrants are sealed, so we do not know the nature of what they’re looking at. I know they searched some documents but I don’t know what they took out of here," Cromer said.
The Associated Press reported that another Detroit supplier, Tokai Rika, also was raided. Company officials couldn't be reached for comment after hours. A spokeswoman for the FBI in Detroit didn't immediately return calls.
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