WASHINGTON — Toyota's top U.S. executive insisted to lawmakers on Tuesday that electronic problems weren't the cause of sudden acceleration problems in some of its cars, but added that the company's recall of millions of vehicles may not "totally solve" the problem.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified, however, that the possibility of an electronic problem couldn't be ruled out.
At a hearing mixed with harrowing personal testimony and precise technical explanations, James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., admitted to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that the Japanese automaker hasn't "lived up to the high standards that our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota.
"We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize and we have learned from them," Lentz said. "We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators."
Toyota President Akio Toyoda will offer his own apology and accept full responsibility for the growing questions about the quality of his company's cars when he testifies Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that," Toyoda said in testimony released in advance. "I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."
Still, Lentz maintained that a pedal problem, not an electronic one, is at the center of sudden acceleration problems that have forced the company to recall 8 million cars worldwide.
"We are confident that no problem exists with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles," Lentz testified. "We have designed our electronic throttle system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure."
"We are vigilant and we continue to look for potential causes."
Asked whether Toyota's recalls would fix the acceleration problem, Lentz testified: "Not totally."
LaHood also wasn't so confident that the problem's been fixed.
"We will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration," LaHood said in prepared testimony, adding "we don't maintain that they answer every question" about the sudden acceleration problem.
The testimony didn't satisfy some lawmakers.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that Toyota "failed its customers" by not swiftly reacting to the number of acceleration complaints and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — which is under LaHood's purview — "neglected its responsibilities" by not aggressively investigating consumer complaints about Toyota cars.
The subcommittee got a sense of what it's like to drive a car suddenly out of control from Rhonda Smith. Her Toyota-made Lexus suddenly raced to 100 mph in October 2006.
"I had the emergency brake on while frantically shifting between all the gears — besides park — but mainly I had it in reverse and with the emergency brake on," said Smith, of Sevierville, Tenn., in written testimony. "I finally figured the car was going to go to its maximum speed and was praying to God to help me."
Smith said she concluded that after speeding for three miles, it must be her time to die, and she called her husband.
"I knew he couldn't help me in this particular situation, but I just needed to hear his voice," she said. "At almost six miles, God intervened."
The car slowed down on its own and she regained control.
Smith said she and her husband were treated shabbily by Toyota and NHTSA when they reported the problem. The couple wound up paying for repairs out of their own pockets. Lentz said he was embarrassed by the way the couple was treated.
"Shame on you, Toyota, for being greedy," Smith said after her tearful testimony. "Shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job."
Waxman and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, dismissed a study Toyota had commissioned from Exponent, a research company, that ruled out electronics failure as the cause of unintended acceleration.
Both lawmakers pointed out that only six vehicles were involved in the Exponent study — and none of them showed electronic problems — but they said that was too small a sample to draw a strong conclusion.
"Toyota had three responses: First, blame the driver. Second, blame the floor mat. Third, blame a sticky gas pedal," Waxman said. "And NHTSA — without doing any meaningful independent review — accepted Toyota's explanation."
The subcommittee also heard from two analysts who suggested that electronic failure shouldn't be ruled out as the source of Toyota's problems. Sean Kane, the president of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., said that instead of concentrating on the source of the problem, Toyota stonewalled consumers.
"For years, the company has ignored or blamed its consumers," Kane said. "Instead of listening carefully to the safety issues consumers have presented them, Toyota has turned them away, assuring them that nothing is wrong."
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., blasted the research conducted by Kane's firm and by David Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University.
Buyer — who has a plant in his district that produces the Camry, one of the models involved in the recall — noted that Kane's research into Toyota's sudden acceleration complaints were funded by five law firms that have cases against the company.
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