- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Under sharp and at times hostile questioning, the president of Toyota Corp.’s U.S. operations told a packed Capitol Hill hearing that even a massive recall by the world’s biggest automaker may “not totally” resolve safety problems implicated in accidents in the United States that have killed nearly three dozen people.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. President James Lentz defended the embattled Japanese auto giant’s safety record, but conceded that the company had failed to meet its own high standards in responding to the crisis. The company was too slow to respond to the safety issues that have led at least three congressional committees to begin what is likely to be a long and exhaustive investigation, Mr. Lentz acknowledged.

TWT RELATED STORY: Hill hearings resume with expected Toyoda apology

“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,” Mr. Lentz told an oversight panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Mr. Lentz was in the hot seat Tuesday, but he might have been just the warm-up act.

In a rare personal appearance by a foreign chief executive, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company founder, will testify Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Advance copies of Mr. Toyoda’s testimony, obtained by the Associated Press, suggest he plans to make a personal apology.

“My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our carmakers,” his submitted written statement said.

The congressional session is the latest chapter in a public relations nightmare for Toyota, whose once-unimpeachable reputation for quality, reliability and safety has been battered by a string of revelations about engineering, marketing and political missteps. The hearing was held just a day after the company revealed that federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal investigation into the safety problems, which have resulted in a recall of more than 6 million Toyota-made cars in the United States and 8.5 million cars worldwide.

Mr. Lentz insisted that Toyota’s engineers had identified “two specific, mechanical causes” of sudden unintended acceleration, which has been associated with at least 34 deaths, according to complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“We are confident that no problems exist with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles,” Mr. Lentz said. “We have designed our electronic throttle control system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure.”

But pressed by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, on whether the company’s action would eliminate the sudden acceleration danger for drivers, Mr. Lentz replied, “Not totally.”

Still, he said, the odds of unintended accelerations were “very, very slim” in any car serviced under the recall. The company also is developing brakes that can override a stuck accelerator on all new models and a majority of those now on the road.

Many lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, bluntly criticized Toyota’s actions.

Toyota officials “misled the American public by saying that they and other independent sources had thoroughly analyzed the electronics systems and eliminated electronics as a possible cause of sudden unintended acceleration when, in fact, the only such review was a flawed study conducted by a company retained by Toyota’s lawyers,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the oversight subcommittee.

Mr. Stupak called for Toyota to conduct a “comprehensive, scientific review of its electronic system,” which he thinks has contributed to the acceleration problems.

Experts called by the oversight committee supported Mr. Stupak.

“We have concluded that neither Toyota nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified all of the causes of [sudden acceleration] in Toyota and Lexus model vehicles, nor has the automaker implemented remedies that address the types of complaints consumers are reporting,” said Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research and Strategies Inc. His firm has examined 2,263 complaints and found that nearly half “involve vehicles outside of any recall campaign.”

Some of the most wrenching testimony came from Toyota drivers.

Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., told the committee about her “near-death experience” in October 2006. Tearing up at times, she recounted how her Lexus suddenly accelerated to 100 mph and failed to respond after she simultaneously slammed on the brakes, activated the emergency brake and put the vehicle into reverse.

“After six miles, God intervened,” and she was able to bring the car to a stop, Mrs. Smith recalled.

The Toyota dealership told her it “could find nothing wrong with the car,” she said. NHTSA’s safety engineers concluded that the problem was caused by badly designed floor mats.

Critics say Toyota officials resisted suggestions that such incidents indicated a deeper design flaw. Congressional investigators this week released internal Toyota memos celebrating the company’s ability to limit the scope and cost of previous recalls negotiated with federal safety officials.

Mrs. Smith’s experience “belies the floor mat and/or the ‘sticky pedal’ recalls and is certainly not ‘driver error,’ ” Mr. Kane said.

Toyota driver: ‘I prayed for God to help me’

Toyota hired its own safety consultant to examine specifically whether electrical design problems may have contributed to the acceleration problems. The consultant found no link between the two, but lawmakers suggested that the company was determined to play down any electrical problems because of the expense involved in fixing them.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the committee that NHTSA “will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration. While the recalls are important steps in that direction, we don’t maintain that they answer every question about the issue,” he said.

A few lawmakers offered at least a limited defense of Toyota, noting that the investigation has ramped up even as the U.S. government has taken a huge ownership stake in troubled American automakers General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC.

Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, expressed concern that Toyota could become the victim of a “witch hunt.”

“We don’t want to just assume automatically that Toyota has done something wrong and has tried to cover it up,” Mr. Barton said. Toyota has “no interest in covering up a problem that kills people.”

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, another Texas Republican, wondered whether there was an ulterior motive behind the expanding investigations of Toyota.

Through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the U.S. government invested $64 billion in General Motors and Chrysler, Mr. Burgess said. “We really are not a disinterested panel of car owners,” he told his fellow committee members.

About 200 Toyota dealers also were on Capitol Hill in support of the automaker, warning against a “rush to judgment” on what has long been one of the world’s most admired manufacturing companies.

“How did we somehow become the villain?” asked Paul Atkinson, a Houston-area Toyota dealer and chairman of the Toyota National Dealers’ Advisory Council.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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