James E. Lentz, head of Toyota Motor Sales USA, talks to the media before testifying at Tuesday's House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing.
James E. Lentz, head of Toyota Motor Sales USA, talks to the media before testifying at Tuesday's House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing. Gerald Herbert/AP
Toyota's massive recall involving some of the country's best-selling vehicles may "not totally" resolve the problem of unintended acceleration, the head of Toyota's U.S. operations told a House panel Tuesday.
James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said company engineers have identified two mechanical problems that cause unintended acceleration: loose floor mats that entrap accelerator pedals, and pedals that stick because of wear. Dealerships are working around the clock to make repairs, he said.
But under questioning by California Democrat Henry Waxman, Lentz admitted those two fixes may not solve all sudden acceleration problems.
"We are vigilant, and we continue to look for potential causes," Lentz told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Earlier Tuesday, Lentz maintained that electronic controls were not an issue in the sudden acceleration of vehicles that led to a massive recall, despite criticism from lawmakers and emotional testimony from a Tennessee woman about a harrowing six-mile ride in a runaway Lexus.
And he was adamant that electronic controls have been tested and retested, and no problems have been found. "We have done extensive testing of this system and have never found a malfunction that caused unintended acceleration," Lentz said.
Toyota has been under fire since last fall because of unintended acceleration problems in numerous models. The government said 34 deaths have been linked to the acceleration problems. Braking issues in the Prius hybrid and steering problems in the top-selling Corolla are also being investigated.
Lentz said the company is confident that "fail-safe mechanisms" in the cars were designed to shut off or reduce engine power "in the event of system failure."
But Waxman, the Energy and Commerce Committee's chairman, scoffed at the company's insistence that electronics were not a possible cause, and said Toyota should have investigated more thoroughly.
Waxman also took the government to task for not doing enough. "Toyota failed its customers, and the government neglected its responsibilities," he said.
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Eddie and Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., testify Tuesday about a near-miss in her runaway Lexus in October 2006.
Eddie and Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., testify Tuesday about a near-miss in her runaway Lexus in October 2006. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Three congressional committees are now investigating Toyota's problems, and numerous lawsuits have been filed. In addition, federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Toyota Motor Corp.'s safety problems, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is probing what the automaker told investors, the company disclosed Monday.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative subcommittee, said the panel's review showed Toyota received as many as 2,600 complaints of runaway vehicles through its telephone hotline alone. More than 700 of the complaints involved accidents.
Witness testimony also called Toyota's findings into question.
Southern Illinois University Professor David Gilbert challenged Toyota's findings that electronic panels could not be involved, saying he was able to generate sudden acceleration in a Toyota vehicle that left no evidence in the vehicle's computer system.
Retired social worker Rhonda Smith testified about a near-accident in her runaway Lexus in October 2006. After entering a freeway near her Sevierville, Tenn., home, Smith said the car began to accelerate, zooming down the highway at 100 mph as she tried in vain to get the car to stop.
She testified that she called her husband on the car's Bluetooth system, believing it would be the last time she would ever hear his voice. "After six miles, God intervened. As the car came very slowly to a stop, I pulled it very slowly to the left median," she said.
Smith said she did not believe floor mats were the cause of her unintended acceleration.
Lentz apologized for the company's slowness in addressing safety issues in some models and pledged to redouble commitment to quality control during the first of three congressional hearings on problems that have led to massive recalls.
"In recent months, we have not lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota," he said. "Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good-faith efforts."
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images
Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda (right), with Vice President Shinichi Sasaki, answers questions during a news conference in Tokyo on Feb. 17 to provide an update on the progress of massive recalls.
Stupak accused the company of putting profits ahead of customers and misleading drivers about safety. "Toyota all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden, unintended acceleration events," Stupak said. "They boast in a briefing of saving Toyota $100 million by negotiating a limited recall."
Toyota President Akio Toyoda, who is set to testify at a separate hearing Wednesday, issued a statement taking full responsibility for the company's failures.
"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization. I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am sincerely sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," said Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder.
Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the United States — since last fall. People with Toyotas have complained of their vehicles speeding out of control in their efforts to slow down, sometimes resulting in deadly crashes.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the House panel that problems with Toyota's electronic controls could not be ruled out.
He said a department investigation includes the possibility that interference with electronics did play a role in sudden acceleration.
"Although we are not aware of any incident proven to be caused by such interference, NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] is doing a thorough review of that subject to ensure safety," LaHood said in prepared testimony. "If NHTSA finds a problem, we will make sure it is resolved."
Lentz said 1,500 U.S. dealers are in the midst of completing repairs to recalled vehicles, and some are staying open 24 hours every day of the week.
About 100 Toyota dealers planned to be in Washington this week to lobby Congress. They're concerned that lawmakers will scare their customers and further drive down sales. They maintain that other carmakers also have had complaints about unintended acceleration.
Dealerships across the country are retrofitting the gas pedals on millions of Toyota vehicles. Robert Boch, who co-owns Boston's Expressway Toyota with his brother, said the recall effort so far has been going smoothly.
Despite the growing controversy, Consumer Reports' annual auto issue ranked the Toyota Prius and the Honda Fit as the best new car values of the year, beating out more than 280 other models.
With additional reporting from NPR's Frank Langfitt, Pam Fessler, Chris Arnold and Brian Naylor and The Associated Press.