WASHINGTON — A Toyota executive told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday that the company's huge recall might "not totally" solve the problem of unintended sudden acceleration in its vehicles.
In response to a question by committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, James E. Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said that Toyota was still examining the sudden acceleration problem, including the possibility that the electronics system may be at fault. While Toyota has found no evidence of a computer problem at this point, Lentz said, "We continue to look for potential causes.
"We need to be vigilant and continue to investigate all the complaints of the consumers," he said. There is the possibility "of mechanical, human or some other type of error."
Lentz also told the committee that Toyota was installing a new brake system that can override the gas pedal on almost all its new vehicles and most of those already on the road. He said that more than 800,000 recalled vehicles have been repaired.
Waxman, while criticizing Toyota's response to the recall, told Lentz: "We need to be sure that you're doing a full and adequate analysis of something you've denied, but that other witnesses have shown us is very possible."
"The possibility of electronic defects must be actively investigated," Waxman said in his opening remarks."
Since last fall, Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the United States alone — in two actions related to complaints about accelerator pedals that can stick, making it hard to stop the vehicles.
In his testimony, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the department had found no evidence of computer problems with Toyota cars and believed that floor mats and sticky pedals posed the greatest threat.
LaHood defended the work of government investigators, but he stopped short of saying the recent recalls would solve all of the acceleration problem in Toyota cars. "We stand ready to ensure prompt action on any additional defects that we have reason to believe are present," he said.
Witnesses before Lentz detailed how an electronic problem could have caused sudden unintended accelerations.
Rhonda Smith recounted the harrowing moments of Oct. 12, 2006, when her Lexus sedan sped out of control at 100 mph.
She told the energy committee she furiously pushed buttons, shifted gears, and slammed on the brakes as she tried to stop the vehicle, Finally, after 6 miles, she was able to stop the car.
She was the first witness in the first of three hearings on Toyota's recall. In their opening remarks, lawmakers said they wanted to understand why Toyota failed to adequately respond to reports of the unintended acceleration, and they questioned whether the car's computer system was at fault, rather than, as Toyota asserts, floor mats and gas pedals.
Smith told the committee she felt that Toyota's response to her complaint was "a farce." She said a company technician told her he was not able to replicate the episode and suggested that it was caused by pressing on the brakes while the tires were spinning.
"Of course we were insulted, and furious over being called liars," Smith said.
Later, Lentz said he was "embarrassed about what happened" to the Smiths. "We're going to go down and get that car and see what happened," he said.
Asked why Toyota had moved away from a business model that prized quality and openness, Lentz said: "We lost sight of our customers. We outgrew our engineering resource. We're suffering from that today."
Lawmakers repeatedly pointed out that their goal with the hearing was to assure consumer safety. "Safety must come first," Waxman said while also faulting investigators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not aggressively pursuing problems with Toyota vehicles.
In a statement prepared for delivery to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today, the president of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, said he took full responsibility for the safety crisis facing his company.
He said he feared the pace at which the company grew in the last decade was too quick. Toyota increased its global sales by about 50 percent, in part by building plants around the world, and became the world's biggest auto company in 2008.
Traditionally, he said the company's priorities had been safety, quality and volume. But in its growth spurt, "these priorities became confused, and we were not able to stop, think and make improvements as much as we were before," he said in the prepared testimony. "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."
And he apologized to members of the Saylor family, which was involved in an accident last fall in San Diego that killed four people and brought the issue of sudden acceleration into the spotlight.